Even when the losses began to pile up, Cuonzo Martin’s confidence in his young team remained stable.
The first-year Tennessee coach was seeing what he liked behind the scenes. It was only a matter of time in his estimation that the results would start to follow suit on the court.
“You see it in practice,” Martin said. “The one thing the guys have done, whether you have four straight losses, the guys have come back to work in practice and put forth an effort. Those guys are really making progress, just focusing on getting better every day, not necessarily looking at the wins and losses but trying to get better every day.”
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Much improved play in all facets combined with a favorable stretch of the schedule have the Volunteers riding relatively high heading into the new year. After going more than a month without a victory over a Division I opponent, the Volunteers rallied with three consecutive victories during the holiday season. The last, against The Citadel, was by far the Volunteers’ best effort of the season, an 86-55 rout that featured surprising contributions from all over the floor.
“The schedule only gets tougher from here,” guard Skylar McBee said. “So we’re just going to try and get better every day. Hopefully, the wins will take care of themselves.”
McBee couldn’t be more right. After a Jan. 2 tilt with Chattanooga, the Volunteers travel to Memphis for a rematch with the Tigers and then dive right into SEC play against Florida.
“We need to play well regardless of the outcome on defense and offense,” point guard Trae Golden said. “We need to execute … We just need keep improving and get on top of our game.”
Before the Volunteers’ Dec. 30 game against The Citadel, freshman F Yemi Makanjuola had scored 18 points over the first two games of the season. Against the Bulldogs, he scored that many points in succession during the second half on his way to notching his first career double-double.
Considered a project out of high school, the Nigerian Makanjoula showed why his recruitment was worth the risk.
“I knew eventually it would come at some point, maybe next year,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He puts the work into practice. Seeing the past couple weeks, he’s really asserted himself. He’s a defender and rebounder first, but he’s really improved his offense. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses. Even that shot he shot at the elbow, that’s a shot he can make in practice. We weren’t surprised as a staff because he can really make shots and he’s a good free-throw shooter, so it’s not necessarily a surprise.”
Tennessee PG Trae Golden rang in the new year with minor nasal surgery. The Volunteers’ leading scorer broke his nose in practice Dec. 16 and the surgery was planned to not interfere with any games or practices. Golden, who averages 13 points and a little less than six assists per game, has yet to miss any time because of the injury.
In 11 of the past 12 seasons, Tennessee has opened the new year on a strong note. Only once during that time, 2009 at Kansas, have the Volunteers lost their first game of the new calendar year. The Vols will get their chance to extend that streak Jan. 2 against Chattanooga.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5.1 — Blocks per game Tennessee averaged through the first part of the season. Ten different Volunteers blocked at least one shot this season, while C Kenny Hall led the team with 16.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“I watched some of my high school tape and I feel like I wasn’t playing as hard, and I feel like I’m executing better now.” — Tennessee freshman C Yemi Makanjuola, who scored a career-high 18 points against The Citadel on Dec. 29.