Tennessee’s trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off didn’t turn out exactly how the Vols hoped—if it had, the Vols, not Oklahoma State, would have pounded NC State for the championship last Sunday night.
But a 2-1 record and third-place finish in the tournament weren’t the worst results, either. More important, the tournament revealed some things about the Vols—some good, some not so good, all vital to the rest of the season.
• If Jarnell Stokes’ engages his motor, he’s a first-team All-Southeastern Conference player and an All-American, and he’s still just 18 years old. His age helps to explain why Stokes’ motor isn’t always stuck on high. He’s still learning the consistency of effort it takes to compete, as Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin often says, “at a high level.”
At least until senior forward Jeronne Maymon returns from the mysterious knee issue that has sidelined him for the better part of six months, Stokes is going to have to get used to double teams. If that weren’t bad enough, he still struggles to score over length—even UNC Asheville’s center, 6-10 D.J. Cunningham gave him problems in the first round of the tournament.
But there are ways around that. Stokes has to make the commitment to post strong, because when he does, he can shoot a little jump hook, which is effective over taller players, or bury smaller players and dunk.
After being limited by double teams in the paint by Oklahoma State, Stokes came out against UMass with a new weapon made possible by his ability to put the ball on the floor. Starting from the high post, Stokes drove past slower defenders for layups. The drive is yet another scoring weapon in Stokes’ arsenal.
Stokes’ Puerto Rico averages of 15 points and nine rebounds got a boost with his 24-point, 12-board performance against UMass in the third-place game.
• Josh Richardson is the real deal.
When Richardson ascended to the starting small forward job in the preseason, it might have surprised some Tennessee fans. But Vol coaches knew how far the sophomore had advanced after making good use of his offseason—including a two-week, 11-game trip to Germany and Poland—and improving the range on his jump shot.
Richardson was the Vols’ fourth-leading scorer in Puerto Rico (9.7 ppg), and tied for second in rebounding (6.0 rpg). He also led the Vols with four steals.
Richardson is Tennessee’s best on-ball defender, but he’s started knocking down the occasional 3-pointer, which makes his dribble-drive game more effective. The lanky Richardson has also become an explosive finisher.
His performance against the Minutemen on Sunday was a testament to his versatility: 11 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals.
• Jordan McRae has found some consistency.
The junior guard has reached double-figure scoring in three of the Vols’ first four games. He averaged 10.3 points in Puerto Rico, and though he didn’t shoot a great percentage from the field (.391), he was an impressive 4 of 9 from 3 (.444) and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line (.818).
McRae’s offensive output is going to be needed, especially on nights when Stokes is blanketed and/or before Maymon returns.
• Trae Golden has elevated his game. The junior point guard is doing the same things he’s always done, i.e. make free throws and 3-pointers at a better-than-average clip, and he’s also become a solid set-up man, press breaker and leader. His assist-to-turnover ratio in Puerto Rico was 2.6-1, excellent by anyone’s standards.
Golden still has some things to work on—defense and making two-point shots foremost among them—but he’s done nothing so far to proven SEC coaches wrong when they voted him second-team preseason All-SEC.
The Tennessee coaches are still trying to gain confidence in freshman Armani Moore as a backup to Golden. He averaged eight minutes a game in Puerto Rico, handing out just one assist against four turnovers. Moore might still be a bit offensive minded, which is typical of freshmen combo guards. But his role is to run the offense, defend, and give Golden some critical relief minutes.
The Vols are off until Monday night, when a pesky mid-major opponent comes back to Knoxville. Oakland has beaten the Vols the last two years, once in Knoxville and last season in Rochester, Mich. when guard Reggie Hamilton toasted Golden (and, to be fair, other defenders) for 35 points.
Oakland has the third-best conference record in college basketball the last three years (45-9) and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere this season, the 29th under veteran coach Greg Kampe. The Grizzlies (2-3) led Pittsburgh by as many as 18 points before losing in overtime. They’ve also lost road games at Louisiana and Boise State.
Oakland has a tune-up for the Tennessee game on Friday night when it plays at Michigan State.