Kent Williams recaps the week for the Vols
LEXINGTON, Ky. — What now for Tennessee men’s basketball?
“Back to work,’’ coach Cuonzo Martin said shortly before leaving Rupp Arena after the Vols dropped a 69-44 decision to No. 1-ranked Kentucky (22-1, 8-0 SEC) on Tuesday night.
The bad news for UT at Rupp Arena was the Vols (10-12, 2-5) scored a season-low number of points on a season-low shooting percentage (28.1) while suffering the largest margin of defeat this season and remaining winless on the road (0-7).
The good news for the team is that the schedule softens considerably with consecutive home games against Georgia (8 p.m., Saturday) and South Carolina (8 p.m., Wednesday). The Bulldogs (10-11, 1-6) and Gamecocks (9-11, 1-5) are all that separate UT from the bottom of the SEC standings.
Georgia lost at Auburn (13-9, 3-5) on Wednesday night. South Carolina plays Thursday at Florida (17-4, 5-1).
The Vols’ postseason hopes are growing slimmer with each loss, as their RPI on Wednesday stood at 142, which doesn’t qualify as a blip, much less a bubble number.
While Martin remains a believer in staunch defense — “I’m not gonna ever budge on that,’’ he said on Wednesday — the first-year UT coach admits his team’s shooting numbers are troublesome.
“If it was a case where perimeter guys are shooting shots and they are highly contested, that’s one thing,’’ Martin said on Wednesday, taking a break from his film study and practice plans. “But when you’re open, squared up, and you’re still not hitting shots? That’s repetitions and confidence.
“We’ll be getting shots up and working game situations (in Thursday’s practice). We’ll shoot the shots in practice that we shoot in the games.’’
Tennessee’s loss to Kentucky marked the third consecutive game the Vols shot a season-worst percentage. The downward trend started in UT’s 65-47 loss at Vanderbilt on Jan. 24 when the Vols were 18-of-51 (35.3 percent) shooting.
In a 64-49 victory against Auburn last Saturday, UT dipped to 34.5-percent shooting.
“Bottom line, you have to make open shots,’’ Martin said. “I thought we had some shots on the perimeter.’’
The only player who appeared capable of making them was senior Renaldo Woolridge, who was 5-of-6 shooting beyond the 3-point arc against the Wildcats.
“It feels good,’’ said Woolridge, who entered Tuesday night’s game shooting 32.4 percent from three on the season but was just 1-of-8 shooting the 3-pointer in previous SEC games this season. “But we have to get wins.’’
Martin didn’t say anything to indicate Woolridge would be moved back into the starting lineup, but he complimented the 6-foot-9 forward’s mindset and improvement.
“Renaldo did a good job making shots, being ready to go,’’ Martin said. “He’s also putting the time in on the practice court. It’s a matter of him being more consistent on both ends of the floor.’’
Martin said UT’s other senior, Cameron Tatum, continues to invest extra time in the gym as well.
Tatum, Martin said, has played well enough on defense and worked hard enough in practice to justify his starting spot despite his current shooting slump.
Tatum is 6-for-29 shooting during the past four games, including 4-for-16 (25 percent) shooting the 3-pointer.
Tatum, however, did have a team-high three assists against Kentucky
Junior Skylar McBee is another player Martin would like to see shoot the open 3-pointer better.
McBee, who like Tatum has impressed Martin with his defensive tenacity, is 6-for-23 shooting during the past four games and 5-for-19 (26 percent) from three.
More important than those numbers, Martin said, is how the individual players respond to the adversity.
“There are no excuses, and nothing is changing as far as what we do to get better,’’ Martin said. “We’ll get our shots up in practice, like we always take time to do. If you’re a shooter, you’re probably going to be working on it on your own, too.’’
Martin said he wasn’t pleased to see point guard Trae Golden shut out in the second half after scoring five points in the first half against Kentucky.
Golden has only three assists in 95 minutes of play in the past three games while committing seven turnovers.
Martin was more forgiving of mid-term freshman enrollee Jarnell Stokes, who suffered through the worst offensive performance of his career in Rupp Arena.
Stokes, who was matched against projected NBA draft lottery pick Anthony Davis, finished 2-of-9 shooting for four points
“Jarnell will be fine,’’ Martin said. “We took him out of the game a few times just to relax him.’’
Stokes admitted he was out-classed and out-played by Davis.
“I had a lot of chances to score the ball, and I felt I could have played much better offensively,’’ Stokes said. “I should have been using my body against him the whole night. That was something I waited until the end to do.’’
Hot Wildcats: Kentucky is off to its best start in SEC play at 8-0 since the 2005 team won its first 10 league games. . . . Kentucky has now held three consecutive opponents below 50 points, the first time that’s happened in program history since the 1950-51 season. . . . The Wildcats are 65-2 in Rupp Arena when playing as the No. 1-ranked team, and coach John Calipari is 47-7 as coaching a top-ranked team. . . . Davis, who scored 18 points and had eight rebounds, entered the game leading the nation with 4.6 blocks per game and had blocked two shots in every game this season.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32