Tuesday, September 23, 2014 · 2:25 p.m.
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NC State's Anthony Barber goes up against Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

If Tennessee’s basketball team continues the roll it’s been on for the last three weeks, it has NC State to thank.

After getting embarrassed on their home court on Dec. 18 by a Wolfpack team that had somehow managed to lose to NC Central at home earlier in the season, the Vols have been on a tear. Admittedly, the competition hasn’t been all that great, but when Tennessee absolutely dismantled a good defensive Virginia team on Dec. 30, people started to pay attention. And after Tuesday night’s 18-point whipping of LSU in Baton Rouge, it’s safe to say it:

The Vols are on a tear.

Consider how well they’ve shot the ball in four games since the NC State debacle: From the field, they’ve made 118 of 228 shots, or 52 percent. From 3, it’s even better: 36 of 68 or 53 percent. They’ve even managed to shoot 69 percent from the free-throw line, which hasn’t been their friend at times.

Yes, Morehead State and Tusculum were two of the opponents in that four-game barrage, but Tennessee has shot the ball so well, it’s become a trend.

Individually, the numbers of starting guards Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton have been scary good. McRae has made 22 of 34 field goals (65 percent), nine of 14 3s (64 percent) and 15 of 16 free throws (94 percent). Barton has hit 18 of 31 field goals (58 percent) and 12 of 20 3s (60 percent).

Clearly, it’s a lot easier to win games when guards shoot like that. Certainly they didn’t shoot that well up through NC State. What’s happened?

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has a way of reducing analysis to its essence. Asked after the LSU game about the Vols’ recent red-hot shooting, he said simply that, “shooting is all about confidence and rhythm.”

The Vols are definitely confident. Actually, as Martin pointed out, the genesis of this current roll can be traced back to the summer, when Tennessee players logged hours of time in the gym, on their own, cranking up shot after shot.

“Before the season, when you shoot between 25,000 and 30,000 shots in the summer, two months, you have to get better at shooting,” Martin said. “I thought we were a pretty good shooting team going into the season. We didn’t shoot as well early in our preconference season.

“But guys are shooting better in practice. This time of year you don’t practice three hours. It’s an hour and a half max. You’ve got to get the skill work, individual times, in.”

Clearly the Vols have continued that habit of getting shots up.

There are other factors. McRae is playing for his team, but also for himself. He’s got a chance to be chosen in the NBA draft, and a growing number of scouts are taking notice, especially now that he’s also become a lockdown defender.

And if you look at Barton’s career numbers, his current hot streak is really no fluke. He’s a career 42-percent 3-point shooter. That’s Chris Lofton territory. The aberration was a little slump mid-way through the non-conference season that, even though it wasn’t mentioned much in the press, may have been caused by health issues. Barton was slowed by an ankle injury and also had a fingernail removed from his shooting hand. Could a shooter have anything worse happened to him?

There’s another factor at work in Tennessee’s lights-out last four games: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have been active in the post. Both are vertically challenged and are never going to be able to score over length. But that hasn’t stopped them from aggressively posting and reposting, and attacking the offensive glass. Because those two have to be contained, Tennessee’s shooters are going to get their share of open looks.

Earlier in the season, those shots weren’t going in. Now they are.

Can Tennessee continue to shoot this well? Probably not. But an 18-point road win over a team that many thought was ready to emerge as an NCAA tournament threat is a confidence builder for a team that was already surging.

The Vols haven’t shot this well for a sustained period under Martin’s watch. This all started after the low ebb of the NC State loss. They would do well to keep the sting of that defeat handy in the next two months. 

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