KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s 68-62 loss to Georgia in Knoxville on Feb. 6 was the last time the Vols lost a game.
It was also the last time they used primarily a traditional lineup with three perimeters players and two post players.
They used plenty of four-guard looks in a 66-61 road win in their next contest against South Carolina and made the switch in their starting look the following game at Vanderbilt. Since that point, Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Armani Moore and Josh Richardson have started every game around center Jarnell Stokes.
Those five, with a heavy dose of minutes for reserve guard Skylar McBee, will likely be the group that takes the floor Saturday at Georgia (1:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) when the Vols look for revenge from the Feb. 6 loss.
“It’s a mismatch for the other team’s four man [power forward],” said Richardson before practice on Thursday. “Armani’s a real strong guy so he can guard a lot of other fours, but it’s tough for other fours to guard him because he’s so quick.”
The four-guard look wasn’t what the team envisioned going to over the offseason, but credit coach Cuonzo Martin for an on-the-fly adjustment after finding out in January that forward Jeronne Maymon (knee) would be out for the entire season.
The Vols have become good enough at the smaller look that they are forcing other teams to adapt to their style.
“A lot of times teams end up going small because of how we play,” Martin said. “Most teams start with their traditional lineups, but what happens is we gain an advantage that teams tend to go small because that’s something they’re not accustomed to doing.”
But it’s what’s not happening in the four-guard look that has been surprising for the Vols as well. Despite giving up the extra size, the Vols aren’t losing the rebounding battle. They’ve outrebounded five of their six opponents during the six-game winning streak. Three times the Vols have held the advantage by 10 or more boards.
How are they pulling it off?
It starts with Stokes, who is perhaps the best rebounder in the SEC for his size at 6-8. He often gives up at least an inch or two to the player or players he’s battling with underneath, but his 270-pound frame helps him get position and his strength helps him pull away contested rebounds.
“When you have that kind of body, when the ball gets in his hands he grabs it, and I think that's his greatest strength,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan after Stokes pulled down 14 rebounds against the Gators on Tuesday. “He doesn't have great lift around the basket...but when the ball is loose and he gets his hands on it, that's what he does best."
Stokes hasn’t been doing it alone, though. The four guards have been getting to the glass and helping out.
“I think when you have Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, you can just send two guys [to rebound], but now you have to have five guys box out and rebound," said Martin. "Jarnell is doing a tremendous job keeping balls alive, getting rebounds, so now those guards have to box out. Trae Golden has done a much better job of getting rebounds."
Added McRae, who had a career-high 11 rebounds at Vanderbilt on Feb. 13: “I think now that we know we have four guards, myself, Josh and Trae are doing a better job of going in and crashing and helping Jarnell.”
Richardson had a far less technical answer. He sees it more as a mindset than a height issue.
“I feel like we just want it more,” said the 6-6 sophomore. “Whoever wants the rebound more is going to get it."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga