Photo by Saul Young, 2013 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee guard Trae Golden never lost his confidence even as he struggled through a midseason benching and an injured hamstring.
Now he's back on the upswing just in time to help the Volunteers make a late-season charge.
Golden has played his best basketball of the season during a four-game winning streak that has revived Tennessee's postseason hopes. The Volunteers (15-10, 7-6 Southeastern Conference) put that streak on the line Saturday at Texas A&M (16-10, 6-7).
"I know there are ups and downs," Golden said. "When I was in kind of a slump, I stayed confident in myself. Even when I got benched, it didn't faze me. I'm still going to play my game."
Golden is shooting 50 percent from the floor and is averaging 18 points per game - 6.6 above his season average - during this winning streak.
It's likely no coincidence that Tennessee's surge began at the same time Golden returned to form. Although Golden isn't Tennessee's best player or its leading scorer, his performance often dictates whether the Volunteers win or lose.
The 6-foot-2 junior has averaged 13 points, 4.9 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game in Tennessee's 15 wins. In the eight losses in which he has played, Golden has 8.4 points, 2.8 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game. Tennessee lost each of the two games Golden missed earlier this month with a strained right hamstring.
"He's like the leader of our team, especially from the standpoint that he can get his own shot and create for others," junior guard Jordan McRae said. "If you don't have your floor general out there, it's kind of hard for someone else to step in and duplicate what he's been doing for us."
Golden's up-and-down performance reflects his team's inconsistency.
He started out on a roll. Golden totaled 26 assists and seven turnovers through the first five games of the season. He scored 25 points Dec. 13 in a 69-60 victory over Wichita State that remains one of the Vols' best wins of the season.
Then he tailed off dramatically.
Golden fell out of the starting lineup last month after shooting a combined 4 of 26 against Western Carolina, Xavier, Memphis and Mississippi. He went 0 of 7 in a two-game stretch against Alabama and Vanderbilt just before getting hurt. Golden scored in double figures just twice in a nine-game span from Dec. 29 to Jan. 29.
"I wasn't playing like myself," Golden said. "That's the biggest thing."
Golden strained his hamstring Jan. 29 in a 58-57 victory over Vanderbilt. The injury forced him to sit out losses to Arkansas and Georgia.
During his layoff, Golden said he watched game tapes and noticed some of the things he was doing wrong. Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes believes the time off allowed Golden to calm himself down and get in the right mindset for when he returned to action.
"In my opinion, it gave him a peace of mind just to relax and go out and play basketball," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Just to sit back and watch it, you can gain a lot of information and a lot of knowledge when you're sitting down and watching games. I thought he had great energy in those two games he didn't play. He has a lot of enthusiasm and was very vocal in the huddle with different guys. I thought that really helped his game."
He's been a different player ever since.
Golden returned to action Feb. 10 for a 66-61 victory at South Carolina that started the Vols' winning streak. Not only has he scored more often during this surge, Golden also has averaged 5.0 assists and only 2.3 turnovers per game. In arguably the best performance of his career, Golden scored 24 points and dished out eight assists without committing a single turnover in an 88-58 rout of Kentucky.
He's shooting the ball more effectively. He also is driving to the basket and drawing fouls. Golden has gone 30 of 34 from the free-throw line over his last four games.
His emergence has resuscitated NCAA tournament hopes that seemed unthinkable a couple of weeks ago. Tennessee remains a long shot for a bid and has no margin for error as it enters its final five regular-season games, but the Vols at least have reason for hope.
Now that his brutal January is behind him, Golden wants to make Tennessee a factor in March.
"I can't control the past," Golden said. "I can only worry about the present and future. (The slump) didn't hurt my mind. It happened. It's over with, and I'm just moving forward."