Cuonzo Martin talks about a rout of Kentucky
Eyeballing the film on Tennessee point guard Trae Golden prior to the weekend, Kentucky coach John Calipari cooked up a game plan.
Force Golden to dribble to his left. Stymie the Vols by manipulating their point man.
Sounded good in theory, but Golden didn't adhere to the reroute. He went right — time after time after time — decking the 'Cats with dexterity.
Twenty-four points and eight assists later, Calipari's game plan resided in the Thompson-Boling Arena garbage, next to some programs and ticket stubs from what now stands as Tennessee's largest win over rival Kentucky — an 88-58 back-handed slap.
"I'll burn the tape from this one," Calipari said. "I won't watch it. I had to sit through it, so I'm not going to sit through it again."
Neither will Kentucky's Archie Goodwin and Jarrod Polson, the two guards undressed by Golden. He pointed out the obvious afterward, saying, "I was just trying to get to where I want on the court."
And he did. In a year pockmarked by inconsistent play and meandering production, Golden has finally landed firmly back on the tracks. Since returning from a strained hamstring, the junior is averaging 17.3 points on 14-of-28 shooting and 22-of-26 shooting from the free-throw line.
The result: three straight wins.
It's not just Golden's scoring, though. The numbers don't paint the full picture. It's his revival. Everyone remembers January. The same No. 11 went from starter to reserve while averaging 6.6 points in 22.8 minutes per
outing in eight games.
The result: three wins, five losses.
UT coach Cuonzo Martin is still trying to diagnose what's happened.
"The stretch he was going through, whatever it was, I have no clue, we were trying to figure out everything; physically, mentally, anything you can think of," he said Saturday. "That was not the guy who finished for you last season. That is when you have your ups and downs as a team because the guy you can count on for production at the point guard position is not at the level he needed to be."
In the same press conference, when Martin said, "This is the Tennessee team I'm accustomed to seeing," it was a sentence punctuated by Golden. In Jeronne Maymon's season-long absence, this Tennessee team begins with its veteran guard.
Jarnell Stokes' dominant play in the paint can't stand on its own. Jordan McRae's scoring (15 against UK) is far more effective when he plays off the ball, feeding off a point guard. Josh Richardson's defense and hustle, which resulted in stitches cinching up a bloody chin from a dive off the floor Saturday, can only do so much.
After Tennessee (14-10, 6-6 SEC) went into the halftime locker room fat and happy with a 50-26 lead, the prevailing question was whether the Vols would revert to form and let Kentucky back in the game. Didn't happen. The foot applied to Kentucky's throat was Golden's. He converted two layups, hit two free throws and assisted on two field goals in the half's opening five minutes. UT led by 31 when the stretch was over.
Whatever has resuscitated Golden's game, the differences are obvious. In January, his passive play was the disease in UT's stagnant offense. Now, suddenly, he won't even let a team keep him from going to his right.
Aggressiveness has been the cure. In that aforementioned eight-game snag, Golden attempted 26 free throws. In the past three, he's made 22.
Following the win over Kentucky, Golden shrugged off his performance as if January never happened.
"I go into every game thinking that the point guard won't be able to guard me," he said. "Jarrod Polson started tonight but that didn't matter. Anybody that they were going to put in front of me I was going to try to attack and make plays for my teammates."
Now the key is keeping it up. Six regular-season games remain, starting with a home date against LSU (15-8, 6-6) on Tuesday (TV: ESPNU, 7 p.m.). The SEC tournament is over the western horizon, unfolding in Nashville less than a month away.
Golden picked a good time to come around.
"Your best players have to be what they are," Martin concluded.
That helps. Now it's LSU coach Johnny Jones' turn to get cooking.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn