Having changed Tennessee's mixture of ingredients, head coach Cuonzo Martin is hoping his Vols will rise to the occasion now that SEC play has begun. The early indications are positive heading into Thursday night's game at Mississippi State.
After watching his original lineup go 7-7 in Tennessee's first 14 games, Martin adjusted the recipe last weekend — replacing junior center Kenny Hall with senior Renaldo Woolridge and replacing sophomore guard Jordan McRae with freshman Josh Richardson.
Although new starters Woolridge and Richardson played well, deposed starters Hall and McRae seemed to benefit most from the lineup shake-up. Showing a new level of energy, Hall scored a season-high 13 points. Showing a new level of defensive intensity, McRae added 10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals and a blocked shot as the Vols shocked No. 13 Florida 67-56.
"They came off the bench with fire," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "They got 23 points between them, and that was huge for us. It was great to have that boost coming off the bench."
Golden was especially intrigued by Hall's reaction to being benched, noting: "I saw a different guy. When he has the mindset that he wants to be aggressive and wants to attack, there's nobody that can stop him."
Appearances aside, Martin said the lineup changes were not intended to be "wakeup calls" for the benched Vols.
"I don't try to do things to wake a guy up," the head man said. "I give the opportunity to be successful, then you do what you need to do. Once I make a move, I make it. It's not for sound bytes, it's not for scare tactics."
A couple of Vols begged to differ.
"I know he said he wasn't trying to send a message but I think he definitely was," McRae said. "It was about me playing as hard on defense as I do on offense, and letting my offense come."
Hall thought the head man was sending him a message, as well.
"The past few games I really hadn't been doing much of anything, and Renaldo had been doing a good job off the bench, so I wasn't really surprised," he said. "Coach always wants us play to hard in practice, and I got caught slacking off a bit. It was a good wakeup call, and I'm just glad I was there for my team when they needed me."
Whether the lineup changes were meant as wakeup calls or not, they produced two major benefits — giving Richardson and Woolridge added experience, while giving Hall and McRae added motivation.
"They came out there with something to prove," junior forward Jeronne Maymon said of Hall and McRae. "Obviously, they wanted to be out there at the start of the game. But it's not about who starts; it's about who finishes."
Perhaps the ultimate benefit of the lineup changes was that they strengthened the team's bond. Rather than pouting on the bench, Hall and McRae were shouting on the bench as their replacements helped fuel the upset of Florida.
"I knew since Thursday I wasn't starting," McRae said, "so I was thinking the whole time I wasn't going to sulk about it ... just go out there and play hard on defense. With him (Martin), if you play hard on defense you've got a spot on the floor."
McRae also showed considerable class by offering encouragement to his replacement.
"I kept my spirits up," McRae said. "I talked to Josh in practice and before the game ... told him to go out there, play hard and not be nervous. I'm happy for him. He did really well."
Hall responded in a mature manner to being benched, as well.
"I was just cheering my team on and hoping they would do a good job out there," he said. "I'll do whatever Coach wants me to do and whatever it takes for our team."