KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee basketball puzzle pieces appeared to be completely settled in their places.
Then Tuesday tossed a twist into the Volunteers' offseason.
The program announced that point guard Trae Golden, a 57-game starter the past two seasons, is transferring and will play his senior season elsewhere.
A source inside the program told the Times Free Press on Tuesday afternoon that Golden's departure is related to academics.
Tennessee's coaches have known Golden may not return next year for a few weeks, and though viable options are difficult to find this late in the cycle, the Vols have been exploring possible replacements, the source added.
"We want nothing but the best for Trae," coach Cuonzo Martin said in the announcement release. "Everyone associated with our program wants to see him be successful, and we wish him well."
Golden was the Volunteers' third-leading scorer with 12.1 points per game and finished third in the SEC in assists with 3.9 per game last season. The Georgia native led the Vols in scoring (13.6 ppg) as a sophomore in Martin's first year, and he was a coaches' preseason All-SEC second-team selection heading into his junior season.
Golden scored 25 points in Tennessee's win over eventual Final Four participant Wichita State in the Vols' December win in Knoxville, but a combination of nagging injuries and poor play cost him his starting job for a stretch.
Once he got out of the funk, Golden was a key part of the late-season run when the Vols won eight of their final nine regular-season games and just missed the NCAA tournament.
A number of former Vols took to Twitter to voice their opinions on Golden's departure.
"Vol Nation y'all don't want to know how I feel about all of this ... SMH [shaking my head]!!" tweeted Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris, one of Golden's closest friends who invited him to attend the 2011 NBA draft with his family in New York City.
Harris later tweeted his support for both Golden and Tennessee's program.
Golden would have to sit out next season if he transfersto another Division I program, unless he is able to obtain an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility.
"I had a great three years here at Tennessee, but I plan to play my senior year somewhere else this fall," Golden said. "I really appreciate the staff and all the great support from Vol fans. I'm definitely going to miss my teammates.
"I want them to have nothing but success in the future."
After adding two players in the late signing period, the Vols were two scholarships over the 13-player NCAA limit for next season. Center Yemi Makanjuola was granted his release to transfer after playing two seasons, and Tennessee released three-star point guard prospect Travon Landry from his letter of intent. He signed with New Mexico State this week.
The Vols return leading scorer Jordan McRae and junior Josh Richardson on the wings and big men Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted this season due to a lingering knee problem, and add five-star shooting guard Robert Hubbs, the headliner of Martin's second signing class.
There's now a void at point guard, though. During Golden's struggles last season, McRae, Richardson and walk-on Brandon Lopez played minutes at the point after freshman Armani Moore moved to the wing after starting the season as Golden's backup. Maymon's return should help the Vols' ball-handling.
Murfreesboro Blackman High School's Darius Thompson now figures to be in line for a bigger role as a freshman next season.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...