While the Vols still don't have an All-SEC lock among their post players, the outlook is considerably brighter heading into Saturday's noon tipoff against Game 8 foe Austin Peay than it was a month ago against Game 1 foe UNC Greensboro.
Two reasons are newcomers Dwight Miller (6-8, 240) and Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 244). Juco transfer Miller played quite well against Louisiana Monroe (8 points, 7 rebounds in 15 minutes) and Memphis (8 points, 4 rebounds in 18 minutes). Makanjuola, supposedly a liability on offense, hit his first six field-goal attempts of the season and is 8 of 11 to date, a 72.7 percent success rate. An enforcer on defense, he's averaging 3.3 rebounds per game with four blocks, even though he plays just 11.2 minutes per contest. His best outing came against Chaminade, when he produced 6 points and 7 rebounds in just 13 minutes.
Miller and Makanjuola have played so well lately that they have bumped senior Renaldo Woolridge (6-9, 215) out of the post rotation.
"The past two weeks Dwight has really made the strides to really earn minutes," head coach Cuonzo Martin said this week. "He's having a level of confidence, understanding what's expected on both ends of the floor, playing at the level we want him to play at, rebounding the ball. It's really just repetition with Dwight on both ends.
"With Yemi, it's offensive reps, spacing, timing. When we're calling stuff on the fly he has to be able to respond quickly. He's a very intelligent guy but the terminology and things he's (still) getting better. Defensively, he's more ready because he's physical and he rebounds."
Tennessee is fortunate that backups Miller and Makanjuola have adapted quickly because starting center Kenny Hall (6-9, 222) and starting power forward Jeronne Maymon (6-7, 255) have been mind-numbingly inconsistent.
Maymon looked All-World in posting 32 points and 20 rebounds versus Memphis in Game 4 versus Memphis but has managed just 20 points and seven rebounds in the past two games combined.
"He's an inside-out guy," Martin said. "The next phase of the game for him is to be consistent, develop that perimeter shot and have confidence in it. We want him to shoot that shot from the 3-point line ... to have the confidence to take 'em even when he's missing 'em."
Hall has been almost as erratic. He produced just one quality performance in the first six games (11 points, 6 rebounds versus Memphis) but turned in his best effort of the season last Saturday against Pitt (8 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocked shots).
"I think it was his best game because he rebounded the ball," Martin said. "He did a good job of posting strong and rebounding the basketball. If he can be in that 8, 9, 10 area (in terms of rebounds) each night we'll be all right."
After hitting 57.8 percent of his shots as a freshman and 52.8 percent as a sophomore, Hall is making just 46.9 percent this season. That's a little puzzling, since he has a good enough stroke to be 12 of 16 from the foul line.
"It's more the footwork to put himself in position to score the basketball than the actual shots," Martin said. "He has a decent touch, especially facing up and making shots. We spend a lot of time watching film on his footwork (so he can) put himself in position to get those shots off."
Tennessee's inside game stepped up in Game 7 versus Pittsburgh. Maymon (3 of 4), Hall (2 of 2), Miller (2 of 2) and Makanjuola (1 of 2) combined to sink 8 of 10 first-half shots. The quartet finished 12 of 22 and accounted for 26 of Tennessee's 56 points.
"I thought they did a good job," Martin said. "Our big guys were assertive, they were aggressive. The way we shoot the ball on the perimeter a lot of times our big guys will be defended one on one. In one-on-one situations they have to be able to make plays. We do a lot of skill work on the blocks, and I thought those guys were aggressive and ready."
Although Tennessee's post men delivered offensively versus Pitt, they were careless on the backboards, allowing the Panthers to score far too many second-chance points.
"They just killed us," Hall said. "They had 17 offensive rebounds. There it (difference in the game) is right there. There's not too much to say about it.... If we would've kept them off the glass, I feel like we would've won by a nice little margin."
The X Factor for Tennessee's inside game is Woolridge. Since producing 11 points, 6 rebounds and a block in 24 minutes versus Game 5 foe Chaminade, he has virtually disappeared. He played just 10 minutes in Game 6 at Oakland and did not see the floor in Game 7 against Pittsburgh. He could return to the rotation, however, with better work in practice.
"The biggest key for Renaldo is just to continue to play hard and understand what's expected on both ends of the floor," Martin said. "That's to be able to play inside-out, to play hard and rebound at a high level in traffic on both ends of the floor."
NOTES: The game between Tennessee (3-4) and Austin Peay (1-9) tips off at noon with TV coverage provided by CSS.... Though picked by league coaches to win the Ohio Valley Conference title this season, the Governors lost their first nine games before beating Arkansas State 86-82 in overtime on Monday night.... Peay's probable starters are 6-7 Melvin Baker (10.8 points, 6.1 rebounds), 6-6 Will Triggs (9.2, 6.6), 6-5 Josh Terry (12.7, 4.5), 6-4 Tyshawn Edmondson (11.8, 3.8) and 6-1 Jerome Clyburn (6.3 ppg, 4.1 assists).... Governors head man Dave Loos is the winningest coach in OVC history. He led AP to a 20-14 record (13-5 OVC) last year and stands 352-299 in his 22nd year at Clarksville. His overall record is 434-352.... Tennessee leads the all-time series 8-0.