Certainly, starter Trae Golden was an easy target during a five-game stretch (Oakland, Pitt, Austin Peay, College of Charleston, UNC Asheville) that saw him make just 14 of 44 shots (31.8 percent) with almost as many turnovers (17) as assists (21). The 6-foot-1 sophomore has rallied since then, however. Over the past seven games he has made 40 of 72 shots (55.6 percent) with 34 assists and 22 turnovers.
Lately, Tennessee's problem is this: When Golden goes to the bench, the offense goes nowhere. Freshman backup Wes Washpun struggled so mightily in the SEC opener versus Florida (4 turnovers in 9 minutes) that he hasn't left the bench in the two games since. That has forced head coach Cuonzo Martin to use starting wings Cameron Tatum and Josh Richardson as emergency fill-ins when Golden is gassed.
Although Tatum and Richardson generally take care of the ball, both lack Golden's knack for distributing the ball to the right people in the right places at the right time.
"That's the key," Martin said. "We don't have a true point guard when he's not on the floor."
The value of a true point guard is accentuated now that imposing freshman Jarnell Stokes has cracked the playing rotation at power forward, bumping senior Renaldo Woolridge to small forward. Running an offense when two guys are filling unfamiliar roles puts more pressure on the point guard.
"Now you've got to have a set offense, so those guys can flow ... at least understand where passes need to go," Martin said. "It's hard to run set plays when you've got Renaldo used to running the 4 and 5 and now you're expecting him to run the 3. That's not an easy thing to do."
Bringing the ball up the floor against full-court pressure from an opposing point guard isn't easy, either. Martin wants Tatum and Richardson to get rid of the ball in these situations, which is why reserve wing Jordan McRae and forward Jeronne Maymon (a surprisingly good ball-handler for his size) brought the ball into frontcourt several times in Saturday's game against Kentucky.
"More than anything, it's who's defending the ball as you're bringing the ball up," Martin explained. "If there's a guy (defender) that really pressures the ball, then you make your other guard bring the ball up or you have Jeronne bring it up. That way you flow into your offense. You don't want a situation where they have a guy really pressuring him (Tatum or Richardson) up the floor and he can't get us into a flow or into the offense."
At 6-feet-6, Richardson is better suited to the wing than point guard. He was happy to play some point against Kentucky, however.
"I played point guard my senior year in high school, so it was not anything really different or new," he said. "I know when Trae goes out that's my role, and I'm comfortable with that."
Golden averaged 35 minutes per contest in Games 13, 14, 15 and 16. If Tennessee can find a backup capable enough to reduce his minutes from 35 to 30, Golden might evolve into the SEC's best point guard.
"He has it in him," Martin said. "He has a ways to go in order to be the best but he has a lot of tools. He can make shots, put the ball on the floor. He has a level of toughness to him, he's taking more pride in defending, he's leading the league in assists.
"I think he's right there. And you're talking about a guy that's just a sophomore at the toughest position in the game when you have to learn it. He only started playing it since he got to college, and now he's playing it live as a true starter. I really think he has the ability to be one of the best, if not the best, in this league when it's all said and done."
Especially if the Vols can find a competent backup so that Golden doesn't have to play 35 minutes every game.