Cuonzo Martin (Getty Images)
The Vols are beginning to dig themselves another early-season hole that could soon be too deep to climb out of during conference play.
A listless 65-58 home loss to NC State on Wednesday night cost Tennessee another chance for a quality win and further shrunk the Vols' margin for error once SEC play begins. Not only have they now lost to Xavier, UTEP, Wichita State and NC State already this season, their only significant win is a victory in their rematch with the Musketeers last month.
One more chance for a notable non-conference victory remains on Tennessee's schedule: a home game against Virginia on Dec. 30. Should the Vols also squander that opportunity, they would be putting themselves in a position where they might need as many as 12 or 13 SEC victories to feel confident about their chances of hearing their name on Selection Sunday.
Many of Tennessee's problems begin at the point guard position.
Coach Cuonzo Martin hoped that Memphis transfer Antonio Barton could serve as an effective one-year replacement for Trae Golden, but the senior combo guard is neither shooting efficiently from the perimeter nor setting up his teammates for easy looks. Though Tennessee doesn't turn the ball over much, it's also last in the SEC in the percentage of its baskets that come off assists and it's shooting only 30 percent from behind the arc, two areas Barton was supposed to help improve.
Without a point guard to get the ball to talented big men Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in places where they can score, Tennessee often becomes too reliant on its lone perimeter scorer, Jordan McRae. In the Vols' four losses, McRae has averaged nearly 19 field goal attempts and he was 6 of 22 from the field against NC State. It also hasn't helped McRae that heralded freshman wing Robert Hubbs has been unable to make much of an immediate impact.
Those problems were all on display against NC State, but the Vols compounded them by showing little fight in the first half. They fell behind 37-20 by halftime because they got pounded on the glass, failed to defend with their usual urgency and created little in the way of transition opportunities.
A second-half comeback fueled by Maymon and McRae made the score respectable, but it was too little too late.
Now Tennessee has to hope that doesn't become a metaphor for its season. The Vols need to get rolling now or another late-season surge may go for naught.
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