Mike Strange: NIT offers several Vols chance at redemption

Mike Strange

Cuonzo Martin previews the NIT

That last impression of a basketball season sticks around a long time. The promise of a fresh start is seven months away.

As a team, an overtime loss to Ole Miss would qualify as a painful punctuation mark for Tennessee, especially with the stakes so high.

For several Vols on an individual basis, their Friday night in New Orleans is not the high note they would envision carrying them through until November.

But the good news is they have a chance to reshape that last impression into something more positive.

"The chance to go off on a good note is a great thing," sophomore guard Trae Golden said Monday.

The NIT has ridden to the rescue. Savannah State visits Thompson-Boling Arena tonight and promise of more good notes await if the Vols take care of business.

Win three home games and Tennessee's last impression will be formed in Madison Square Garden.

For Golden, Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes in particular, the Ole Miss videotape wasn't fun viewing. It's not the way they want to be remembered for the 2011-12 season.

McRae was 0-of-8 shooting. Stokes was 1-of-7, his only basket coming in overtime.

Golden scored a game-high 21 points but some of his defense and decision-making left something to be desired.

"I expect guys to play hard and compete," coach Cuonzo Martin said before the Vols started their only practice for Savannah State.

"If the shots don't fall, they don't fall. That's what happens. That last game I don't think we did a good job of defending as a team.

"I just want guys to understand why they're playing. As long as you're playing for Tennessee, you're fine."

The shots didn't fall. UT hit a dreadful 28.1 percent.

Stokes, who went to

New Orleans as the SEC player of the week, was stymied by a physical Ole Miss defense that packed in a tight zone. He hustled up 11 rebounds but was tentative looking to score.

"I wasn't as physical as I usually am," he said afterward. "I didn't bring enough to the table."

If the season had ended Friday, McRae was 1-of-15 in his final two games. The sophomore had been a catalyst coming off the bench in UT's February stretch run.

"I'm gonna keep playing my same game," he said. "I'm not really gonna change anything up. I just had an off night I guess.

"I'm glad we're able to play some more, though."

Golden, as playmaker, bore some responsibility for Tennessee settling for 3-point shots against the Ole Miss zone. The Vols launched 34 of them.

Ole Miss had less trouble penetrating. Jarvis Summers, the Rebels' freshman point guard, scored 17 points.

There also was a failed alley-oop pass to McRae on a fast break that Golden wishes he had back — as does Martin.

"I see a lot of things I have to improve on," Golden said.

Thanks to the NIT, he doesn't have to wait until November, either.

McRae still has the promise of ending his sophomore season on a hot streak rather than a cold one.

Stokes can reassert himself all the way to Madison Square Garden if the chips fall right.

The last impression has yet to be made.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 1

johnlg00 writes:

While it may be true that the lingering taste of defeat and underachievement CAN be a catalyst for an off-season of hard work to improve and ensure they never feel that way again, there is a lot to be said for taking away a sense of accomplishment in addition to the sense of needing to be better. I think it would leave a much better impression on visiting recruits in the locker room and on the practice floor for the team to have a sense of optimism and cheerful determination to get better rather than lingering disappointment and weary resignation. Such an atmosphere can be created if the Vols win out. Of course, a couple of wins in the Big Dance could have the same effect, but that option isn't open to them now. The team will be much better off, IMHO, if Stokes and McRae can erase the memory of their failures against Ole Miss with a positive NIT experience. Of course for that to happen, the Vols have to get some of their mojo back over the next few games and not flame out tonight.

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