Guarded optimism

There's no better place to follow the Vols' quest for an SEC Tournament title than here at InsideTennessee. Here's a free preview of tonight's game:

If tonight's SEC Tournament game between Tennessee and Ole Miss comes down to late free throws, the Rebels could be in a world of hurt.

Vol guards Trae Golden, Cameron Tatum, Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae have come through in the clutch lately, especially at the foul line.

Golden led the SEC in regular-season free-throw shooting both for league games (90.3 percent) and all games (85.3 percent). What he has done at crunch time the past month is even more impressive, however.

Over the last nine games Golden has stepped to the foul line 27 times inside the final six minutes of games, making 25 shots. That's a 92.6-percent success rate. Incredibly, McBee (12 of 14), McRae (11 of 13) and Tatum (7 of 8) have been almost as efficient during that span.

Counting an overtime period at LSU, the Vols' top four guards have combined to sink 55 of 62 foul shots from the six-minute mark to the final buzzer in their last nine games. That's a mind-boggling 88.7-percent success rate. Not coincidentally, Tennessee won eight of those nine games.

"Guys stepped up, especially late, to make big free throws at the end of the season," head coach Cuonzo Martin noted. "Trae was the best in the league at that. It's tough to get beat when you can make 'em down the stretch the way we're defending."

If the old saw that "Guard play is the key in March" holds true, Tennessee has a chance to make a nice post-season run.

Consider:

Golden produced double-figure scoring in each of the last nine games, averaging 15.0 points and 4.3 assists per game during that stretch.

McBee hit 37.2 percent (16 of 43) from 3 with just six turnovers in those nine games.

McRae averaged 10.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and just 1.3 turnovers over the past nine games, despite playing a reserve role.

Tatum has hit 54.2 percent (13 of 24) from the field over the past four games, including 42.9 percent (6 of 14) from beyond the arc, en route to averaging 10.5 points per game during that span.

"Our backcourt is doing a really good job of executing, especially Trae Golden," power forward Jeronne Maymon said. "Cameron Tatum, Jordan McRae and all of those guys are really stepping up and showing what we're made of. They're giving us that extra backbone that we need."

As Big Orange fans are acutely aware, Tennessee generally goes as Golden goes. The Vols tend to win when he plays well and tend to lose when he plays poorly.

"Sometimes he has off games but he's always giving 110 percent," Maymon said. "We need him to lead us to victory. When he goes out there and plays well, that really helps us (inside players)."

Tennessee's head coach concedes the point: If Golden plays close to his potential, the Vols are hard to handle.

"Any time Trae Golden plays to a high level — not necessarily how many points he scores, but when he is in the game mentally — we're tough to beat," Martin said.

Noting that Golden "has a chance to be one of the best point guards in this league with his ability and skill package," the coach added: "As a sophomore starting his first season, I thought he played really well. He got better late.

"He's getting to the rim, he's knocking down 3-point shots, penetrating and pitching. When he's not turning the ball over, he's really hard to guard. He's really learning how to run a team more than anything."

Golden understands the importance of his role in Tennessee's success but is not awed by the challenge.

"The responsibility I feel is the same as any other game," he said. "I just have to go in and lead the team, do whatever we need that night to get the W."

Not all of the pressure is on Golden, of course. Tennessee's other guards also must perform well in the SEC Tournament if the Vols are to make a run at the title.

"We need for Jordan McRae to stay aggressive, looking to score the ball and making strong moves to the rim," Martin said. "We need him getting to the free-throw line more because he's a really good free-throw shooter. He's a guy that's built to score, so you need him aggressive.

"Skylar McBee is making shots. We need him to look for his shot a little more, being aggressive. Cam is playing really well. Cam's doing a lot of things — shooting the ball, getting to the rim, rebounding the basketball."

With Maymon and freshman Jarnell Stokes giving Tennessee a potent inside game, the Vols could be a real force in March if they continue getting quality performances from their backcourt players.

"More than anything," Martin said, "our guards need to be able to take care of the basketball, facilitate on the perimeter and be aggressive."

Exceptional guard play has helped Tennessee win eight of its last nine games heading into the SEC Tournament. That momentum could be helpful tonight.

"I think it helps a great deal from a confidence standpoint," Martin said. "It's amazing when you have a level of confidence what you can do. But you've still got to go out there and play the game. You have to play hard and do the things you have to do to win."

NOTES: Ole Miss advanced to tonight's second round with a 68-54 defeat of Auburn on Thursday night. Nick Williams scored 22 points and Murphy Holloway chipped in 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Rebels. Ole Miss pulled down 19 offensive rebounds in dominating the backboards 45-31.... Tennessee (18-13) will be facing an Ole Miss team (19-12) that has won four in a row since losing 73-60 Feb. 22 in Knoxville. The Rebels bolted to a 15-2 lead that night only to see reserves Dwight Miller and Jordan McRae ignite a 19-2 rally that put Tennessee on top 21-17.... Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy is a big fan of Vol point guard Trae Golden, noting: "I voted him all league. I honestly think he's maybe the second- or third-best point guard in this league. I really believe that. I think he does a great job on the ball." Kennedy had this to say about the rest of Tennessee's lineup: "I think they got length in McRae and (Cameron) Tatum on the wings. Both those guys are long, athletic kids. Obviously, Jarnell (Stokes) is a man, (Jeronne) Maymon is a man, physically — they play physical basketball. They don't allow you to dribble through them often." ... Tonight's game is scheduled to tip off at 6:30 Central (7:30 Eastern) with television coverage provided by the SEC Network.


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