Four games in four days. One-hundred, sixty minutes.
That’s what it will take if Tennessee basketball wants some SEC nets.
Setting course for the conference tournament, UT coach Cuonzo Martin said the fifth-seeded Vols will need “fresh legs” if they hope to notch four wins in Nashville this week. For a team with four players — Jordan McRae, Trae Golden, Josh Richardson and Jarnell Stokes — who played more than 29.9 minutes per game in league play, that’s no small concern.
In Saturday’s win over Missouri, McRae and Golden each logged 37 minutes. Richardson played 36. Stokes played 30. That’s been a typical night since Martin shifted to a four-guard look nine games ago.
Tennessee (19-11, 11-7 SEC) won eight of those games, proving it worked, but is that workload feasible for four straight days?
Martin claimed he’ll stick with what works, saying on Monday he won’t “save legs,” in UT’s first game against either 12th-seeded South Carolina (14-17) or 13th-seeded Mississippi State (9-21) on Thursday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.). Nor will he in Friday’s potential quarterfinal with fourth-seeded Alabama (20-11).
In between, though, the Vols can anticipate less on-court work.
“This time of year, you’ve got to have fresh legs,” Martin said. “You can’t go out there and practice an hour, two hours, three hours. That’s a long time and you get bogged down. With our key guys, they’ve got to play major minutes for us.”
Like in any postseason tournament, UT will need role players outside its trio of all-conference candidates — McRae, Stokes, Golden — to step up.
When each of the stars were asked Monday who it would be, each delivered a different answer.
“We’ve been getting some great play from Skylar (McBee), Josh and Armani (Moore),” said McRae.
“Obviously Josh,” Golden said.
“Kenny (Hall) has really stepped up and (Quinton Chievous) has brought a lot of energy and is really playing his role and not trying to do too much,” said Stokes, who was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday, garnering his second such honor of the season.
Martin, meanwhile, is looking well off the beaten path for production. He plans to expand his rotation to include junior guard D’Montre Edwards, who played in just six league games, scoring in only one.
“Right now, we’ve got to find another guy off the bench that’s got to give us production,” Martin said. “I think that guy is D’Montre. We’ve got to get D’Montre in there. He’s got to be the next guy for us. He has the ability, skill and make-up.”
Unless it’s a blowout situation, Edwards’ minutes won’t cut into any of McRae’s. The junior guard has played 37 or more minutes in UT’s last six games, including 56 in the Vols’ four-overtime win at Texas A&M. Because of that game in College Station, McRae is averaging 41.2 minutes per game in the stretch.
In conference play, his 37.7 minutes per outing is tops in the SEC.
Asked if he can play 36 or 37 minutes a game in four straight days, McRae answered with an eye roll and an accompanying, “Yeah, no problem.”
“We have a lot of guys playing heavy minutes on our team, I think we’ll be fine with that,” he added. “Four games in four days is back to the AAU days.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.