Tennessee's biggest concern is turnovers, Cuonzo Martin revealed Monday. Yes, turnovers.
The biggest plus?
"The biggest plus for us as a staff right now is team defense,'' Martin said.
Yes, team defense. Imagine that.
Team defense, a subject near and dear to the coach's heart — right there next to winning — has flip-flopped from biggest concern to biggest plus.
Happy New Year.
At the end of November, a lot of us were wondering how we were so off base on what we expected the new era to be like. The first six games into Martin's first season were almost an extension of the Rocky Top Summer League.
The Vols were playing up-tempo, firing at will. Opponents were scoring 84.7 points a game.
Now we know we weren't so off base after all.
In three SEC games — all against top-20 opponents — it doesn't look like Rocky Top anymore.
In SEC play, UT opponents are scoring 61.0 points a game, shooting only 40.6 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from 3-point range.
This is Cuonzo Ball. This is team defense.
All three of the above numbers are very close to the goal Martin had in mind before the season tipped off.
"We tried the 90-point thing and came up short,'' he said. "We have to be a tremendous defensive team and that's the way I'll be as long as I'm part of this program.''
They came up short, for instance, against Memphis, 99-97, in Maui and then 89-81 at Oakland.
UT's three SEC scores: a 67-56 win over Florida, a 62-58 loss at Mississippi State, a 65-62 loss to No. 2 Kentucky.
The difference isn't that Martin did a 180. There was no New Year's resolution to ditch the run-and-gun and grind it out.
No, 67-56 is what he had in mind when Mike Hamilton introduced him last March. But first he and his team had to traverse the learning curve.
In November, Martin was still identifying his personnel, their strengths, weaknesses and inclinations. And they were sizing him up.
"And we're playing live games,'' Martin said. "The
games don't stop, so you try to make those adjustments in game situations.''
One notable adjustment was inserting Josh Richardson and Renaldo Woolridge into the starting lineup for SEC play.
Richardson, a Martin signee, is a defender by trade. Jordan McRae, whom he replaced, is not. Woolridge, a senior, brings high energy. Kenny Hall, the man he replaced, has responded positively off the bench.
Things are looking up. But ingraining defense is a work in progress.
"We have to get the mindset where we hate for teams to actually score baskets against us,'' Martin said. "Once we get that, we can make another step.''
Winning at Georgia on Wednesday would be the next step.
"We've all bought into the system,'' Hall said. "Continue to play hard and grind it out and amazing things can happen.''
Sneaking into the NCAA bracket would qualify as amazing. In all likelihood, the transformation — and Jarnell Stokes — came too late for that.
"From Florida to now, you say (is UT) one of the 65 or 68 best teams?" said Martin. "I would say yes.''
Because team defense has become the biggest plus, not the biggest concern.
Now, about those turnovers.