Scenes from 2012 UT basketball media day
Photo by Adam Brimer // Buy this photo
The long, late summer nights of the offseason were spent looking behind and dreaming ahead.
Head on pillow, eyes strained open, Tennessee point guard Trae Golden stared ahead. Over and over, on countless nights, the flickering television replayed the same sad movie: Tennessee versus Middle Tennessee State.
The Vols' second-round NIT loss from a year ago.
Golden never let it go.
"I watched that MTSU game so many times, man," he said Thursday.
The memories were motivation.
In an offseason of hope, Golden has been a leader. The junior says he worked tirelessly on his game and with his teammates.
He trained with leading-returning scorer Jeronne Maymon, telling him, "If you've got a dream of playing in the NBA, you've got to knock down that midrange jumper." He approached sophomore Josh Richardson and said, "Get in the gym and make sure you're the best shooter you can be."
When the team came together Friday for the first official practice of 2012-13, it was like they never left.
In his second year piloting coach Cuonzo Martin's motion offense, Golden says he's finally comfortable. It took time.
He was asked at this time last year to rely on his innate scoring ability, but balance it with being an unselfish, deft point guard.
No small task, but Golden found himself by season's end.
Playing a team-high 32.0 minutes per game, he averaged 13.6 points and scored double digits in UT's final 12 games (9-3). He finished fourth in the SEC with 4.5 assists per game and second in free-throw percentage (82.8 percent).
"I see a lot of confidence in him now," said Tennessee assistant coach Tracy Webster, who works primarily with the Vols' guards. "He understands what he needs to do and what we're looking for him to do. He knows that he can play, but now he understands that it's his job to make everyone else around him better."
Thus all the gym time.
"I dragged out my friends, my girlfriend, (team) managers, my neighbors in here so I could get up shots," he said. "That's what it takes to be the best."
Lost in the vast Tennessee shadow cast by Maymon and star sophomore Jarnell Stokes, Golden wants to answer the two question marks gracing his resume — turnovers and defense.
In Tennessee's 18 wins, Golden dished 99 assists and committed 52 turnovers. In 14 losses, it was 55-46.
"When Trae is indecisive, he can't turn the ball over," said Martin, soon adding "and he must play with passion and pride on defense."
If Golden does, the shadow might disappear.
"I know what I've got to do," he said resolutely.
Golden's 2011-12 stats were nearly identical to that of Michigan point guard Trey Burke. The only drastic difference was in shooting percentages. Golden's numbers were better.
Yet, Burke appears on numerous preseason All-America teams.
That's life for Golden.
He's the point guard for a UT team known for its post play. He's been dubbed a "scoring point guard" and is seen as little more than that, regardless of the numbers ... the facts.
Golden had more assists per game than Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Michigan State's Keith Appling and Kansas' Elijah Johnson.
"I'll score. I'll pass. I'll shoot. I'll do what I need to do to win," he said. "I led the SEC in assists for a long time (last year) and still I was called a scoring-first point guard. Something's got to give.
"At the end of the day I'm always going to be labeled as that. That's never going to change. I'm just going to play my game."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn