Monday, December 22, 2014 · 5:44 p.m.

Tennessee basketball notebook: Yemi steps up

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Nicodemus Christopher, Tennessee basketball's new strength and conditioning coach, puts sophomore forward Yemi Makanjuola through his paces. (Photo: Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

KNOXVILLE — He may never be mistaken for countryman Hakeem Olajuwon, but if Tennessee sophomore Yemi Makanjuola can come close to averaging the numbers he contributed against Wichita State last Thursday, the big man will have more than earned his scholarship.

Pressed into duty because of the lingering knee issues of senior Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes’ foul trouble, Makanjuola, the native of Lagos, Nigeria, delivered nine points, eight rebounds, and assist and a blocked shot in 20 minutes in a much-needed win over the 23rd-ranked Shockers. If not for Makanjuola’s best game of the season, the Vols could easily have lost their third straight game.

"Yemi Makanjuola played an exceptional game,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He's been playing really well defensively. (Against Wichita State) he made some baskets for us. We've spent a lot of time with him on offense—being aggressive, being assertive, looking to score the ball.”

Makanjuola has always been a wiry strong, active and athletic presence in the low post, but it would be a stretch to call him an offensive threat despite the occasional outburst—including scoring 18 straight points against The Citadel a year ago. He’s been working on becoming more a more consistent scorer. If he can, that 20-minute run he earned against Wichita State will become the norm rather than the exception.

But Makanjuola has no designs on becoming a big-time scorer.

"I've been working on making more baskets in practice, trying to take my time on offense and not force it when I have time,” he said. “If I catch a rebound close to the net, then I'll try to put it back, but I'm not going to waste my energy for defense on offense."

• Wichita State coaches couldn’t be blamed if they wondered who No. 24 was for Tennessee. Perhaps they caught guard Brandon Lopez, an invited walk-on from Knoxville, during his five-minute first-half stint against Virginia in the Vols’ previous game, or saw the free throw he made in the final minute of a loss to Oklahoma State.

Otherwise, Lopez’s presence might have come as a surprise.

Tennessee walk-on Brandon Lopez has begun to earn minutes as a backup to starting point Trae Golden. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

Martin has been hinting since the preseason that Lopez, who averaged 25.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists his senior season at Austin-East High School, might earn some minutes as a backup to starting point guard Trae Golden. Recently, as freshman Armani Moore, who earned the first chance to be Golden’s understudy, has fallen out of the rotation, Lopez’s status has been elevated. He logged seven minutes against Wichita State, and though his numbers (0 for 2 from the field, one rebound, one turnover) weren’t significant, the fact he gave Golden a few minutes rest was.

Lopez wasn’t heavily recruited by Division I schools in high school—Wofford showed brief interest before signing another point guard—despite those impressive senior-year stats and a 3.9 gpa. He was invited to walk on at Tennessee, and he’s gradually worked his way onto the court because many believe that he’s the Vols’ second-best leader, behind only Maymon.

In an interview that appeared on Tennessee’s official website, Lopez was asked about his strength as a player. The first thing he mentioned was his leadership ability.

"I think my biggest strength is leading on the court because I talk well,” he said. “I can tell my teammates where to go because I know the game. I love leading my teammates in a positive way. It's OK to get after somebody, but you have to do it in the right way. The thing I need to work on is my defense. I can play defense, but I know guarding bigger, stronger, faster people at the next level will be an adjustment."

It’s apparently Moore’s inability to play D that has allowed Lopez to move ahead of him in the rotation. The way Martin talks, it sounds as though Lopez could stay there for a while.

“He just did a good job of playing his role,” Martin said after the Wichita State game. “He pushed the ball—we want him to push it, be aggressive and find bodies. He missed a layup in the first half, but it was an aggressive drive. He put pressure on the defense and does a good job of backing Trae up. He’s done a pretty good job in practice, so he earned those minutes, and I’ve got to give him those minutes.”

• Tennessee’s defense has limited its last five opponents to a combined .346 from the floor: Massachusetts (.348), Oakland (.286), Georgetown (.364), Virginia (.358), Wichita State (.382). If former Vol coach Kevin O’Neill taught us anything, it’s that holding opponents under 40 percent represents a good night’s work defensively.

Given that, Tennessee has been on fire on that end of the floor lately. The Vols are No. 2 in the Southeastern Conference and No. 23 in the nation in scoring defense (57.4 ppg), No. 4 in the league and No. 57 in Division I in field-goal percentage defense (.385) and No. 2 in the conference and No. 6 in the country in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.248).

As for the other end, well, the Vols are No. 224 in field-goal percentage (42.2) and 287th in scoring offense (62.4 ppg). But the good news is that they don’t have to ramp up their point production too much if they’re going to continue to defend the way they have. And there’s no danger of a decline in defensive intensity.

“That’s the style (Martin) plays,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said after his team was held to .382 shooting in a 69-60 loss to the Vols. “I said going in this is probably the best defensive team we have played all year. They make it tough.”

• After the meat grinder of a schedule they’ve played the last month, the Vols should get a break this week. The opponent on Tuesday is Presbyterian of the Big South Conference, which is 1-7 and sports an RPI of 335.

That record is misleading, though. The Blue Hose have yet to defeat a Division I opponent, but it faced a brutal schedule to start the season—four straight road games at Clemson, Georgia Tech, Creighton and Wisconsin.

But this isn’t a good sign: Even lesser D-I opponents have pounded Presbyterian. Cornell won 89-55, and Florida A&M 69-55.

On Friday, the Vols play host to Western Carolina (4-6). The Catamounts are well coached (Larry Hunter has won 620 games in a 32-year career) and have played a fairly challenging schedule. WCU and the Vols have two common opponents so far—Wichita State and Georgetown. Western Carolina has lost to them both.

 

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