When a 3-5 record in January and an 0-2 start in February dropped Tennessee's record to 11-10, head coach Cuonzo Martin was befuddled.
"I couldn't figure it out," he admits. "There were so many things going wrong."
The Big Orange Nation hoped the Vols bottomed out with a 20-turnover performance in a 73-60 loss at Arkansas on Feb. 2. But they looked even worse on Feb. 6, allowing a mediocre Georgia team to shoot 55 percent (11 of 20) from 3 en route to a 68-62 win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Exasperated, Martin pulled 6-foot-9 senior Kenny Hall from the starting five and tried a four-guard lineup.
Presto! Tennessee was transformed from a team that couldn't handle the ball or defend the perimeter into a team that suddenly could do both. The debut of the four-guard lineup saw the Vols commit just nine turnovers in a 58-46 win at Vanderbilt. They also limited the normally hot-shooting Commodores to 3 of 14 from 3-point range.
The four-guard lineup came through again Saturday against No. 25 Kentucky. The Vols committed a mere five first-half turnovers and limited the Big Blue to 33.3 percent shooting en route to a 50-26 intermission bulge they ultimately parlayed into an 88-58 annihilation.
As a result, fans likely will see 6-foot-8, 270-pound post Jarnell Stokes surrounded by four guards again tonight, when Tennessee (14-10 overall, 6-6 SEC) hosts LSU (15-8, 6-6). That will create some interesting matchups, since the Tigers start a couple of big bruisers in 7-foot-3, 254-pound Andre Del Piero and 6-foot-9, 256-pound Johnny O'Bryant III.
"I just think for us the four-guard lineup has spacing, guys dribble-penetrating, guys making shots," Martin said, adding that it also "opens it up for Jarnell, allows him to play."
With four ball-handlers in the lineup, Tennessee also is playing at a faster pace and getting more easy points in transition than earlier this season.
"You've got to be able to make decisions with the basketball," Martin said. "If you've got three or four guys that can handle the ball in transition and can make a decision that's a tough team to defend. I think we're making progress towards that."
The guards in Tennessee's four-guard lineup are 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson, 6-foot-5 Jordan McRae, 6-foot-5 Armani Moore and 6-foot-1 Trae Golden — arguably the four most athletic guys on the roster. That has given the Vols far more transition opportunities than they got earlier this season.
"We get out on the break and get a lot of easy points," McRae noted. "With four guards I think we do that a lot better."
With four guards on the floor at once, however, Richardson and McRae often find themselves guarding the opposing power forward. Most times their superior athleticism trumps his superior size.
"Myself and Josh guard the 4 sometimes," McRae conceded, "but there's not too many 4s in the SEC right now that are traditional, big 4s that sit on the block."
Richardson and McRae could be in for a tough night if they have to defend LSU's power forward this evening. O'Bryant leads the SEC with 11 double-doubles and is coming off a game against Mississippi State in which he missed a triple-double by just two assists.
As a reserve member of the four-guard lineup, senior Skylar McBee believes it gives the Vols an emotional advantage.
"I think when you feel like you're the underdog, the little guy, it gives you that scrappy edge you need to keep fighting," he said. "I think that's the way we're feeling right now."
GAME NOTES: Both teams are trending upward. LSU has won six of its last eight games after starting SEC play 0-4. Tennessee has won five of its last seven after starting league play 1-4.... O'Bryant leads the Tigers in points (13.0 per game) and rebounds (8.7 per game). Also expected to start for LSU are Del Piero (4.3 points per game), 6-foot-4 Malik Morgan (5.4 ppg), 5-foot-11 Anthony Hickey (11.7 ppg) and 5-foot-10 Andre Stringer (10.7 ppg). Hickey leads the NCAA with an average of 3.3 steals per game.... Tennessee is 3-0 since Golden returned to action following a strained hamstring. He averaged 17.3 points and shot 50 percent (14 of 28) from the field in those three contests.... Tennessee won last year's game 74-69 in overtime at Baton Rouge. Stokes hit 9 of 10 shots and scored 18 points in helping the Vols overcome a 15-point deficit that night.... Tonight's game can be seen on ESPNU. Tipoff is set for 7:02.