The Vol variation is named for sophomore point guard Trae Golden, who was easily the team's most pleasant surprise of the exhibition season. After producing 14 points, five assists and one turnover versus Carson-Newman, he came back with 22 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers Monday night versus Lincoln Memorial University.
Golden's stat line for the two exhibition games shows him 10 of 21 from the field, 7 of 16 from 3 and 9 of 11 from the foul line. He averaged 18 points per game with 13 assists and only one turnover.
"Trae's been awesome at the point guard position the last two games," senior teammate Cameron Tatum said following the LMU game. "He had a great night scoring, but also eight assists and zero turnovers. What more can you ask of your point guard? He worked hard all summer for this chance, and I think he's stepped up to the plate."
Point guard was a major concern heading into the 2011-12 season. That's because 2010-11 starter Melvin Goins was out of eligibility and Golden was a modest contributor last season. The rugged 6-1, 209-pounder posted a good ratio of assists (69) to turnovers (32) but shot just 29.3 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from 3.
Golden seemed to elevate his game during the summer, however. He averaged 27 points per contest in leading his team to a 6-0 record and the Rocky Top League title.
First-year head coach Cuonzo Martin believes Golden made significant strides during the offseason following his freshman year.
"The thing that Trae did throughout the spring and summer was condition his body so he's able to play and knock down that (fatigue) wall and bust through," Martin said.
That stamina was evident in the second exhibition game. After LMU closed within four points at 64-60, Golden drained a clutch 3-pointer, then assisted Tatum for a basket that bumped the lead to 69-60 en route to a 76-67 final score.
"I thought he did a great job because he was fatigued and we wanted to keep him rolling because he was playing well," Martin said. "He understood what was going on and executed our offense. You have to identify him on the court because of his ability to go off the bounce and find guys."
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Golden's game is that he exhibits the unselfish attitude of a pass-first point guard. He referred to his 8-assist, 0-turnover stat line as "the best thing I heard all night ... when I heard I had no turnovers. I'm just trying to take care of the ball."
His team spirit became even more evident moments later, when he was asked to assess his play in the two exhibition games.
"I'm all right with it but I'm not focusing on my play," he said. "I'm focusing on the team's play. I really want to get our big guys going. I know J (Jeronne Maymon) and Kenny (Hall) are really good, and I just want to get their engines going."
When questioned about his 13-to-1 assist/turnover ratio, Golden smiled.
"Coach told me to take care of the ball," he said. "That's really what I'm trying to do: Read what the defense is trying to do and take advantage of it."
Golden's standing as a team player surfaced yet again when reminded of his 4-for-9 shooting from 3-point range versus LMU.
"Yeah, man. They were falling," he said. But everybody came out popping. Skylar (McBee) came out 4 for 6. Cam (Tatum) got his stroke going. Jordan (McRae) didn't shoot that well (1 for 9 overall, 1 for 5 from 3) but I know next game he'll be ready. It was good for us."
Although he made some clutch shots late in each exhibition game, Golden says he doesn't consider himself the No. 1 option in those situations.
"I just wanted to make sure we got the ball to the right people," he said. "Our game plan was to get the ball to J and Kenny. Those are our bread-and-butter guys. Late in the second half we got it to J and he got fouled (7 for 7 from the free-throw line). He didn't finish like he wanted (2 of 7 from the field) but he'll get better at that. We're going to keep feeding him and Kenny."
McBee, who briefly supplanted Golden as the No. 2 point guard last season, is thrilled by his teammate's dramatic progress.
"Trae's playing really good ... doing a really good job for us," McBee said. "I never had any doubt that he would do this for us when he got the reins and got to take control. He's doing a great job, and I think he'll get even better throughout the season."