After producing 36 points in a one-point loss at Georgetown and 38 points in an eight-point loss at Virginia, the Big Orange (4-3) is looking to get its offense back in gear tonight, when it hosts No. 23 Wichita State (9-0) at 7:05 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols' recent offensive woes are eerily reminiscent of the O'Neill years (1994-97) — great defense but no offense. Tennessee scored 50 or fewer points nine times during the 1994-95 season, four times in 1995-96 and seven times in 1996-97. The low point was a 43-35 loss at Auburn on Jan. 15, 1997.
Like O'Neill's teams, the 2012-13 Vols struggle mightily to score from the perimeter. They made just 3 of 16 shots from 3-point range against Georgetown's 2-3 zone, then 3 of 19 from 3 against Virginia's man-to-man. Because Tennessee can't hit from outside, opposing defenses are collapsing to shut down Jarnell Stokes on the inside.
"That's a lot of it, especially the open 3s that we get," junior wing Jordan McRae said. "You've got to hit the 3s when we get the ball inside and they throw it out of the double-team. Those are the shots we're going to have to hit this year."
Considering that the Vols made just 6 of 35 shots from beyond the arc the past two games, you can make a pretty good case that there's nothing wrong with their offense that making a few 3s wouldn't fix.
"That would help a lot, getting Jarnell and Kenny (Hall) and guys like that open down low," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said. "People can't trap as hard if we're making 'em pay from the perimeter."
"That definitely would help to open everything else up," junior point guard Trae Golden agreed. "But right now I believe we're just thinking too much. If we play our game it will all click for us."
Asked how much the absence of injured power forward Jeronne Maymon is affecting the looks Tennessee gets from the perimeter, Golden shrugged.
"I don't think it makes too much of a difference," he said. "I don't think we'll get any different looks if Jeronne was there. Everything's magnified right now because Jeronne's out and we had two games (scoring) under 40 points, but it's still early in the season, so we'll be good."
Despite scoring just 74 points in the last two games combined, McRae said Tennessee's confidence is "up," adding: "We're taking good shots. We've just got to hit 'em."
The confidence level may be up, but so is the frustration level.
"It's pretty high," Richardson conceded. "We're getting the looks we want but we're not capitalizing."
Richardson said the Vols have spent "a lot of practice time on offense" lately, in addition to getting up around 500 shots per day on their own time.
In the 1990s many Tennessee fans speculated that O'Neill's players devoted so much energy to defense that they had none left for offense. That theory now is being applied to Martin's 2012-13 team.
"That's funny," McRae said, unable to stifle a laugh. "We do work really hard on defense but that's not a reason why we're not hitting shots. We've just got to hit shots, plain and simple."
Although Tennessee is keeping most opponents below 40 percent field-goal shooting, the Vols aren't creating turnovers to give themselves fast-break opportunities. That would boost their scoring a bit.
"I think to loosen that up we need to push the ball a lot more," McRae said.
Golden agreed, noting: "I think we've got to get out in transition and run more. I think we've got to stop thinking so much and just play aggressive on the offensive end. Then we'll be fine."
Obviously, the Vols should have a better chance to score while opposing defenders are still scrambling to get in position.
"We don't really have one-on-one players on our team," McRae said. "I think our team will thrive from getting out in the open court. We have long, athletic wings and bigs that can run. That's easy points, rather than having to come down and run a set (play) every time."
Richardson agreed that speeding up the tempo might help.
"We talked about that a little bit; we've got to get up more volume of shots," he said. "We haven't been getting very many possessions in a game, and if you're not getting many possessions you're not going to score very much."
As the point guard, Golden says he is largely responsible for increasing Tennessee's offensive tempo.
"I'm huge because I've got to push the ball, make sure everybody gets transition buckets and things like that," he said. "I have to be more conscious of getting out and running because we're getting stops. I just got to make sure we run. Once we do that I think it will open up our offense."
Told that his players are eager to run more, head coach Cuonzo Martin laughed.
"I'd like to run all the time," he said. "So they're going to get out and run? I can't wait to see 'em."
Given how miserably Tennessee has shot the ball in the past two games (30.6 percent from the field and 17.1 percent from 3), a hot start against Wichita State would be really advantageous.
"That would definitely help a lot — get our momentum up, get our confidence up," Richardson said. "That would get us running. When we're hitting 3s we're a different team."
Certainly, Tennessee fans would love to see a "different team" tonight than the one that showed up against Georgetown and Virginia.
GAME NOTES: This is "Tribute to Ray Mears Night" in honor of the legendary Vol coach who posted a school-record 278 victories, a .713 winning percentage and three SEC Championships. Arena concession stands will feature throwback $1 prices on drinks and popcorn. Several former Vols from the Mears era will be introduced, including Bert Bertelkamp, Don Campbell, David Cockrill, Jim Cornwell, A.W. Davis, Mike Edwards, Dennis Falls, Mike Jackson, Bill Justus, Lloyd Richardson, Pat Robinette, Larry Robinson, Jim Woodall and Rodney Woods.... Wichita State is coached by Gregg Marshall, former head man at Winthrop.... Tennessee has never beaten Wichita State. Wade Houston's Vols lost 77-73 to the Shockers in the 1990 Rainbow Classic at Honolulu and Bruce Pearl's Vols lost 80-63 in the 2006 NCAA Tournament's Round of 32 at Greensboro.... Tonight's game will be televised by FOX Sports South, with Randy Smith and Justus handling the broadcast. Justus also will address the Vols before the game.