Cuonzo Martin on UT's loss at Memphis
MEMPHIS — The SEC season doesn't begin until Saturday. Nevertheless, Wednesday was a demarcation line for Tennessee basketball, the turning of a page.
The Southern Conference and Ohio Valley portion of the 2011-12 Vols season is history. The Big Boy Basketball portion began Wednesday and it wasn't pretty.
The Vols had lately righted their ship after stumbling through the first half of December. They arrived in Memphis with a four-game winning streak.
After watching the Memphis Tigers pull away to a 69-51 win, you have to wonder when Tennessee's next winning streak will be.
Florida on Saturday, then a trip to Mississippi State. Then Kentucky, at Georgia, Connecticut, at Vanderbilt and, well, circle Auburn's visit to Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 28 as the next time Tennessee might be favored in a game.
"It's a long season,'' said guard Trae Golden, one of the few bright spots for the Vols in the Tiger den. "We're gonna have our ups and downs. We're still a young team.''
And they looked it, facing a howling blue crowd of 18,334 at the FedExForum.
Sixteen turnovers, 10 of them Memphis steals. Yemi Makanjuola committed three turnovers. Wes Washpun, another freshman, got into a heated situation with a Tiger or two that resulted in a double-technical foul.
What would a UT-Memphis game be without a double technical?
On a night when baskets were hard to come by, Golden scored 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. But he also had five turnovers.
"Our focus wasn't where it needed to be,'' said Golden. "This was a good game for us, coming on the road to a hostile environment, knowing that next time when we go to a Florida or Kentucky, we can't do the same things.''
It was a hostile environment all right. Much more so than laid-back Maui where the Vols battled the Tigers through two overtimes in November before blinking, 99-97.
No one was wearing aloha shirts Wednesday. This was the real world. Memphis had its crowd and that meant energy.
"You have to win 50-50 balls and hustle plays,'' said Memphis coach Josh Pastner, "and we did that.
"That's why we won the game.''
The hostility extended even to certain noncombatants. Like Jarnell Stokes.
Tennessee's newest signee, in one final appearance in his hometown before reporting to Knoxville, sat behind the UT bench in street clothes and got an earful.
"Hey, Jarnell, you're a hillbilly,'' cried one voice.
And as the game got out of hand, another voice offered this:
"Get used to it, Jarnell. We're gonna cram it down your throat the whole time you're there.''
That remains to be seen. But the Vols need Stokes and more like him to avoid getting blown out, whether it's in Memphis, Lexington or Tuscaloosa.
The Tiger roster boasted eight Memphians, four of them starters. One, junior center Tarik Black, blasted five dunks in Tennessee's face en route to 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
Luring the brawny and gifted Stokes to Knoxville was a bold stroke for UT's first-year coach, Cuonzo Martin. Will there be others willing to make the 400-mile journey east, I wondered.
"I think so,'' said Martin. "That's your job to go recruit the best players available. We'll definitely do that.''
For now, the Vols have to make do. Trailing 69-49, they needed Josh Richardson's uncontested layup in the final minute to avoid Memphis being able to boast its biggest victory margin in the intrastate rivalry. The Tigers had won by 19 twice before.
On Saturday, Florida, not the Citadel, shows up at Thompson-Boling. Next week, the Vols venture to Starkville and that's a considerable step up from Charleston.
""This game,'' said Golden, "it didn't do nothing but motivate us.
"There's no time to get discouraged now, 14 or 15 games into the season. Getting discouraged is out of the question.''
Hold on to that thought.