“Listen here,” Cuonzo Martin demanded to 15 rapt faces Thursday. “Man up right now. I want to see how you handle this pressure.”
The Tennessee men’s basketball coach let a pause linger.
Dribbles pounded the Pratt Pavilion hardwood. Each Vol navigated a fullcourt swarm of coaches and team managers.
Now, hell awaits.
“The way Arkansas pressures the ball, you have to be able to handle the ball, whether you’re a point guard or not,” Martin said before practice. “If you can’t handle the ball, it’s going to be a long night for you.”
Or even a long Saturday afternoon. Tennessee will face up-and-down Arkansas today (TV: ESPN, 4 p.m.) at Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks will bring their typical helter-skelter “40 Minutes of Hell” and the potent duo of B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell.
The Vols (12-7, 3-4 SEC), meanwhile, will bring an 0-5 road record to a home court worth 31.4 points. Arkansas (12-8, 3-4) is 12-1 at home thanks to a 92.8 point-per-game attack. In seven games outside the state lines, the Razorbacks are winless and average 61.4 points.
Tennessee is coming off back-to-back home wins over Alabama and Vanderbilt. Arkansas is coming off back-to-back road losses to South Carolina and Alabama. Both reside in the murky middle of the SEC standings.
“I feel like these last two games we got over the hump,” said UT junior guard Jordan McRae, the conference’s second-leading scorer in league play at 18.9 points per game. “We’re just going to keep on pushing from there.”
McRae and the UT guards are charged with navigating a press defense forcing 18.4 turnovers per game, fifth-most nationally. They’ll do so without point guard Trae Golden. The junior is “very doubtful” after suffering a strained right hamstring in Tuesday’s win over Vanderbilt.
Asked Thursday if he can single out any one player and know he can handle the pressure, Martin drew a tongue-in-cheek smile and responded, “We have to handle their pressure. We’ll be ready to go.”
Tennessee averages 12.6 turnovers. The problem is when they’ve occurred, often late in games against trapping pressure, precisely what Arkansas thrives on.
In practices since the Vanderbilt win, the Vols worked on inbounding the ball against double teams, keeping the ball in the middle of the floor and attacking full-court pressure.
One player Martin kept an eye on? Brandon Lopez. The walk-on point guard will garner some minutes with Golden on the shelf. After sitting for five straight games, Lopez played 10 minutes against Vandy. Because of a lack of action in practice, he said his “legs got heavy” in that affair.
Style-wise, Arkansas makes Vanderbilt look like a plodding boat with its anchor down. The Hogs are on jet skis.
Lopez’s legs will get all they can handle.
The key, according Martin, is to stop Arkansas from scoring. No offense equates to no defense. If the Hogs can’t get buckets, they can’t set up coach Mike Anderson’s press.
That won’t be easy with Powell and Young roving. The two combine to average 31.8 points.
But they both battle consistency problems. Young scored 25 points against Syracuse earlier this year. He also scored seven last weekend against South Carolina. Powell scored 28 in a win over Auburn one game after going scoreless in a foul-plagued loss to Texas A&M.
When the press does appear, Martin doesn’t want passive play.
“Really it’s about getting the ball over the top of that press and attacking the rim,” he said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn