"Small ball" played big dividends for the Tennessee Vols Wednesday night at Memorial Gym in Nashville.
With 6-foot-1 junior guard Trae Golden replacing 6-foot-9 senior center Kenny Hall in the starting five, Tennessee dramatically improved its ballhandling and its perimeter defense, factors that proved decisive as the Vols thumped homestanding Vanderbilt 58-46.
Speaking on the post-game show, junior Jordan McRae noted that "We started four guards tonight and we got to push the ball to try and get some easy points. It was a fun, fast-paced game."
Posting its second consecutive road win after losing its first six, Tennessee improves to 13-10 overall and 5-6 in SEC play. Vanderbilt slips to 9-14 overall and 3-8 in league play.
Hall, who had started 21 of 22 games this season, did not leave the bench against the undersized Commodores.
"In my opinion they start five guards, so (the key was) to slow those guys down," Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin explained. "I didn't want those guys getting 3-point looks. I wanted our defense, our pressure, to force those guys out of a rhythm."
The strategy worked. The Commodores made half of their 3-point tries in the opening 20 minutes but managed just six attempts. They also committed seven first-half turnovers against a small but active Vol defense.
Martin thought the little lineup enabled his team "to be more aggressive, to get out in the passing lanes, to be more assertive, attacking. That's the way we're capable of playing.
"Nothing against Kenny Hall. Kenny didn't play tonight. He continues to bring his hard hat and work as a senior but I felt like the guys on the floor gave us the best opportunity to win the game. You had to have at least four guards on the floor at all times against these guys."
One key benefit of the four-guard lineup was that Tennessee was quicker running the floor in transition. This created more fast-break opportunities than the Vols normally get.
"For us, it's really about getting out and running," Martin said. "I like to run. I want to get up and down and run. We've just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball in transition. We struggle with transitions. When we get great opportunities we've got to capitalize and not turn the ball over. I thought our guys did a great job of really attacking and being aggressive."
That was especially true of Golden. Starting for the first time since Jan. 9 against Ole Miss, he came out smoking. He produced nine of Tennessee's first 19 points — scoring on a 10-footer from the lane, two free throws, an eight-footer in the lane, a 3-pointer and a putback.
Jarnell Stokes took over at this point — scoring eight of Tennessee's next 16 points as the Vols built a 35-22 lead with 3:40 left to intermission. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore started the barrage with a 17-footer, then added a layup, a tip-in and two foul shots.
McRae drained a 3 that bumped Tennessee's lead to 14 points at 38-24. Stokes scored on a driving dunk, giving him 14 first-half points and giving the Vols a 40-28 lead at the break.
Back-to-back baskets by Armani Moore off Stokes assists preceded a 10-footer by Josh Richardson that gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 46-30 with 16:47 to go.
The Vols suffered their only lapse in focus at this point. Committing turnovers on three consecutive possessions against a trapping Vanderbilt zone press, they watched the Commodores make an 8-0 run that whittled the gap to 46-38 with 12:06 remaining.
McRae hit a 10-footer from the baseline, however, then assisted Stokes for a dunk to ignite a 10-2 spurt that enabled Tennessee to push the lead back to 16 points (56-40) with 5:05 to play.
Stokes posted his sixth consecutive double-double, finishing the night with 17 points, 10 rebounds (6 offensive), 5 blocks and 2 assists.
"Really, in the last six games he's identified himself as a go-to guy," Martin said. "I can see it as a coach. Now your offense flows because you know where you're going with the ball. He's one of those guys that, even when he's being posted, he can make decisions and get assists with his passing."
McRae posted his first career double-double with 14 points and a career-best 11 rebounds. Golden added 12 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists.
"In a venue like this, you have to have good guard play in order to have success," Martin said. "I thought Trae Golden did an exceptional job of running our team tonight."
The head man also praised McRae, noting: "He was facilitating, attacking the rim, making plays, defending, getting big rebounds. Now he's becoming a complete basketball player."
McRae and Golden played 39 minutes each, Stokes 37 and Josh Richardson 32. The only reserve to contribute significantly was Quinton Chievous, who produced 5 points, a rebound and an assist in 10 relief minutes.
"That's his nature," Martin said. "He's tough. He's hardnosed. He's going to be physical and he's going to play hard and compete. He's a guy that can score the basketball. He made a big 3 in the first half, got a big rebound and put it back in. He gave us big minutes."
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Kentucky at 1 o'clock.