KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- When the Tennessee basketball team defeated Villanova in the championship game of the NIT Season-Tip-Off in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26, 2010, freshman guard Trae Golden was forced to watch from his Times Square hotel room. His “Big Apple” experience had been derailed due to flu-like symptoms.
That is the only game Golden – now a junior – has ever missed during his UT career.
But as the Volunteers (11-8, 3-4 SEC) prepare to face Arkansas (12-7, 3-3 SEC) on the road Saturday (4:05 p.m. ET, ESPN2), Golden is listed as “doubtful” after suffering a right hamstring strain during the first half of Tuesday’s win over Vanderbilt.
During Tennessee’s off-day on Wednesday, the Powder Springs, Ga., native underwent an MRI that confirmed the strain.
“It’s tough for our team,” Vols head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I thought he had really been assertive (lately) with the ball. So it’s tough for our team, but more importantly, it’s tough for Trae. He wants to be out there. He’s upset about it. But we have to keep moving.”
Golden has been the Vols’ top playmaker over the past two seasons. He averages a team-best 3.9 assists this year while also ranking third on the team in scoring with 10.0 points per game.
Though he has come off the bench in each of UT’s last six games, Golden has still played a key role in the Tennessee backcourt. In SEC play, he was averaging 24.7 minutes per game before his injury (fourth on the team). And he was often on the floor in critical, late-game situations.
Should Golden be forced into a spectator’s role Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark., sophomore walk-on Brandon Lopez should be prepared to shoulder an increased workload. Lopez, a Knoxville, Tenn., native, stepped up against Vanderbilt following Golden’s injury Tuesday and recorded two rebounds and a career-high three assists while serving as a catalyst in the Tennessee triumph. Lopez had not appeared in the five previous games.
“(Brandon) has good leadership qualities,” Martin said. “The guys respect him when he’s out there on the floor because he has a level of passion and energy. He’s one of our best cheerleaders when he’s on the bench – getting guys motivated and getting them ready to play. And he does the same thing in practice.
“The one thing about him is that he’s always prepared to play. And that says a lot about a young man. He went five games without getting on the floor, but his preparation is always at a high level. There’s no hesitancy about putting him on the floor, because he’ll be ready to play.”
When asked by reporters Thursday if he’d prepare differently for the Arkansas game knowing he was more likely to receive increased minutes in Golden’s place, Lopez was quick to respond.
“My mindset has always been the same, whether I’m playing one minute, no minutes or 40 minutes,” he said. “I just always stay focused, because you never know when your time is going to come.”
Arkansas plays at Alabama Thursday night before returning home to host the Vols Saturday afternoon.