David Climer: Tennessee Vols discover identity on SEC road

12:35 PM, Feb 14, 2013   |    comments
Jarnell Stokes. Wade Payne, AP
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Tennessee's Vols spent the first two months of the season searching for their identity.

Maybe they've finally found it.

By beating Vanderbilt 58-46 on Wednesday night, the Vols continue to gain a little altitude in the SEC. It marked the first time this season UT has won consecutive conference games -- both on the road, no less.

And with Nerlens Noel out for the season, a visit by Kentucky on Saturday doesn't seem quite so daunting.

"I think we can beat any team in this league now," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said.

Granted, that's not saying a lot when you consider the current state of SEC basketball. Outside of Florida, whom the Vols face in two weeks, the SEC gantlet is not exactly a murder's row this season.

Just the same, UT is on an uptick. Jarnell Stokes authored his sixth straight double-double on Wednesday night. Jordan McRae is a threat, as evidenced by his 14 points and 11 rebounds against Vanderbilt.

And it's not just a coincidence that UT's first two SEC road wins of the season have come with point guard Trae Golden playing big minutes and putting up solid numbers. At the urging of his coach, Golden has been much more assertive on offense. Martin called Golden "an offensive point guard" and told him to look for his shot instead of focusing on assists.

Golden buzzed South Carolina for 16 points last weekend and had 11 of his 12 points against Vanderbilt in the first half as the Vols took a 40-28 lead.

"I just wanted to get off to a good start so we could ride off that," Golden said.

It worked. The Vols never trailed. They built a 46-30 lead barely two minutes into the second half before Vanderbilt surprised them with a trapping 1-2-2 press. Suddenly, UT went seven straight possessions without a point as the Commodores nudged back within 46-38.

But that's as close as it got, thanks to a couple of nice offensive moves by McRae, who broke a 6½-minute scoreless drought with a basket and then set up Stokes at point-blank range.

From that point forward, it was all Vol. Vanderbilt struggled to cope with Stokes, who fought through double-teams to muscle his way to the basket or to make passes to open teammates.

"Jarnell has really stepped up," Martin said. "... Now you have a guy you run your offense through."

Vanderbilt knew what was coming and defending accordingly. Most times the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Stokes caught the ball anywhere within 10 feet of the basket, the Commodores threw a second defender at him.

It worked on some UT possessions and didn't on others. Stokes countered by attacking quickly, making his move immediately after catching the ball, releasing his shot before the double-team arrived.

Martin also adjusted by running some sets that got the ball into Stokes' hands 15 feet or so away from the basket and out of the congestion.

"I know I've got the advantage," Stokes said. "I like bullying guys in the post. I don't want to be known as a finesse player or a jump shooter."

Vanderbilt had no answers. And that's happening more and more in a season that could be among the worst on Kevin Stallings' watch. With the exodus of talent and experience after last season, these Commodores are painfully lacking across the board.

Vanderbilt is just 3-8 in the SEC and needs to start winning some games if it's going to avoid the embarrassment of playing on the first night of the expanded SEC Tournament. With 14 teams in the league, the bottom four play on opening night.

One year removed from an SEC Tournament championship, that would be adding insult to injury.

David Climer's columns usually appear on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 or dclimer@tennessean.com.

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