Tennessee’s defense has been a staple for the Big Orange this season. Tennessee’s strong play on that end of the floor helped the Vols start the season strong moving into the top 25 while picking up wins over Washington and VCU.
The loss of Lamonté Turner was a big one for Tennessee as the senior guard was a high end on ball defender, consistently matching up with opponent’s bests scorers. After his season ending surgery the Vols production dropped on defense for the next two games as they gave up 68 to Wisconsin and 78 points to LSU.
However, since Tennessee’s loss to LSU the Vols have returned to form as the best defensive team in the SEC. In the five games since, Tennessee has given up just 57.4 points per game.
“I think the biggest thing is not as many breakdowns,” head coach Rick Barnes said of the recent improvements on that end. “We do a lot of switching… and they’re picking that up better, they’re echoing better, they’re communicating better and they’re talking better. We’re getting more carryover from practice when it comes to that communication.”
With the recent defensive success Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks seventh nationally allowing opponents just 59 points per game. Tennessee also ranks best in the SEC in opponents field goal percentage as teams are shooting just 38% against the Big Orange.
“I really think that is something we can pride ourselves on,” forward John Fulkerson said. “If shots aren’t falling, we can still lock down defensively, so I think we’ve done a much better job on the defensive end, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Tennessee even added a wrinkle to compliment its man-to-man defense, playing a full court 1-2-2 in its previous two wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Tennessee has run the defense with an aggressive mindset, trapping and creating steals but has mostly used it conservatively, making opponents work their way up the floor while wasting time on the shot clock.
“That’s always been a part of our plan, we never had a year where we didn’t have it,” Barnes said of the zone defense. “I learned that press from Joe Gallagher at St. Johns High School as an assistant coach back in the early eighties and it’s always been a part of our system. It just depends on how much we want to use it.”
“We feel like with this group it will help us. Hopefully we can get some time off the clock so they don’t have as much time to work with, and we’re longer and we can spread out up there, which we like that. We still have to get better with it, to be quite honest with you. There’s some holes that we need to plug.”
The defense makes sense for the current Vols. Tennessee’s team speed isn’t its strength, but its length is a serious one. Tennessee has long players and tall guards who make life difficult while attempting to attack the zone press.
“That’s been something we’ve been working on the whole year,” freshman Olivier Nkamhoua said. “I guess, the coaching staff decided this way suits us better, this group we have now. … I guess they feel like that’s our best way to create the same type of pressure that this team has all season.”
The defense was particularly useful against Vanderbilt where Tennessee used it to force three quick second half turnovers as the Vols opened the second half on a 10-0 run. The zone press was a major factor in Tennessee’s second success and helped spark the rim.
The nature of the press, especially when run conservatively, helps shorten the game and leads to a low scoring style of basketball. For this Tennessee team, one that struggles to score consistently, the ability to shorten the game and not let opponents get into a rhythm is a major benefit.