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Cuonzo: UT playing like it should

Cuonzo Martin didn’t hear Kentucky coach John Calipari say Tennessee looks like “an NCAA tournament team,” but the Vols’ coach doesn’t disagree.

Coach Cuonzo Martin talks to his Tennessee Vols during Saturday's home game against second-ranked Kentucky.

Martin said during his Monday lunchtime press conference that Tennessee currently looks like one of the nation’s top 68 teams.

The Vols (8-9, 1-2 SEC) have scored four more points than they’ve surrendered in their first three SEC games — all against top-20 opponents in Florida, Mississippi State and Kentucky — but they’ve got a losing record after losing close battles against the Bulldogs and Wildcats.

But don’t fault their defense, which kept them in games against Mississippi State and Kentucky despite long offensive lulls against both opponents.

Martin said his team “has a long way to go on both ends of the floor,” but the coach with a proven defensive pedigree is anything but displeased with UT holding three consecutive ranked teams to 65 points or less.

“I think more than anything, our guys are playing the way as a staff that we would like to see them play,” Martin said. “When you get out the gates early in the season, for me as a coach I go back to I really didn’t know the guys, you know? I’m coaching them, then all of a sudden ... the first time I really learn about them and start figuring them out, we’re playing in live games. Then we go five, six, seven games, and you try to make subtle adjustments — this guy probably isn’t as good at this position as you thought, or this guy doesn’t work as hard as you thought — but the games don’t stop, so you’re trying to make those small adjustments in game situations.

“But I think our guys are starting to play the way we as a staff envision our guys could play, especially on defense. Offense comes and goes; guys make and miss shots. But if we defend at a high level, we’ve got a chance to be successful.”

Senior guard Cameron Tatum and junior forward Kenny Hall admitting staying in games with defense has been an adjustment for a program that used to try out-scoring opponents, but both veterans think everyone has gotten much closer to the same page.

“We’ll all bought in to the system, and we’ve seen what it can do,” said Hall, whose play on both ends of the floor has improved since a recent demotion to the bench.

Martin and UT senior guard Cameron Tatum

Tatum said everyone has started buying in for simple reasons: The players believe in Martin, so they believe in his plan.

Besides, as Tatum, players want to be on the floor, and there’s only one way to get on the floor on a Martin-coached team.

“It just gives us that sense of confidence,” Tatum said the team’s newfound defensive mindset. “We can say that our offense might be off (occasionally), but when the other team comes on their offensive end, it’s going to be tough for you to score. We’re going to make it tough for you, and that kind of keeps us in games a lot of times. If our offense is not going, we’ve got to hang our hat on the defensive end.

“If you’re not scoring, you damn sure better not let your man score. That’s the motto that coach Martin has brought to us, and that’s the script that he wants us to stick to, and I think guys are starting to buy in on that. They see how the dividends are paying.”

Tatum was UT’s halfcourt defense is “way better” than it was last season, and junior forward Jeronne Maymon said it’s much better.

“Everybody’s got to hang their hat on something. Why can’t ours be toughness?” Maymon said. “That’s fine with me.”


SWIPERBOY SHIFT: Martin confirmed a stance he originally noted after the Kentucky, that versatile 6-foot-9 senior Renaldo Woolridge would start transitioning back toward more time at the small forward (or “3”) position. Woolridge has spent most of this season at the power forward (or “4”) spot, but five-star freshman forward Jarnell Stokes’ ability to contribute immediately has forced Martin to play around and find the team’s best rotations.

Versatile UT senior Renaldo Woolridge

“He’s done a lot and plays with a lot of energy — some 5, some 4, some 3 — and that’s not an easy thing to do,” Martin said of Woolridge. “There were a lot of situations where we had some different lineups out there and it was hard to really call plays against Kentucky, but we’re trying to incorporate him some at the 3. He’ll still play some 4, but we’ll try to slowly incorporate him there at that 3 position.”

Martin said Woolridge’s biggest challenge will be “readjusting his mind to really defending” on the wing. He’s not overly concerned with the senior’s ability to produce offensive at the position.

“It’s probably been high school (since he’s been) chasing guys at the small forward position off screens,” Martin said. “I think that’ll be the biggest adjustment for him — guarding smaller guys off the dribble, chasing them off screens.”

Martin said Woolridge’s time at the 3 position will be dictated more by the senior’s play than the matchup against specific opponents — at least most of the time.

“I mean, if it’s a really small guy, that’s different,” Martin said. “But if they’ve got 6-5, 6-6 guys that don’t do a lot of running off screens, (that’s OK).”

The staff at govols247 will continue to post notes from Martin’s press conference throughout the day on the CheckerBoard.

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