Volunteer hoopsters out to perfect defensive craft
Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 5:06 pm
By: By BETH RUCKER, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee’s defensive play won it the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. Coach Bruce Pearl says the Volunteers must now figure out how to keep up the effort.
“We’ve been good defensively, but we’ve got to stay good defensively, and that’s going to take great team effort,” Pearl said Monday. “If we have one guy that doesn’t quite get to his spot, there’s a breakdown. Every team has an opportunity to create its niche and to carve out its identity, and so far that’s been something we’ve been able to count on.”
In just over five seasons under Pearl, Tennessee has slowly progressed from a team that relied on full-court pressure defense to create turnovers and extra scoring opportunities for its sharpshooting guards.
As Pearl has attracted bigger and more physical players to the program, the Vols still use a lot of pressure but apply it more in the half court to keep opponents from getting clean shots on the basket.
The Vols (5-0) used that stifling half-court defense to limit Villanova’s usually prolific shooters to 34.5 percent from the field and 19 percent from 3-point range in the NIT championship game. Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes had shot a combined 18-for-45 in a semifinal win over UCLA but shot 7-for-30 against the Vols.
Grabbing the tournament title helped them to jump 11 spots in the Associated Press Top 25 to No. 13. It also helped quiet doubts about the Vols’ ability to play well under the cloud of an ongoing NCAA investigation into Pearl’s recruiting practices.
“I think for us to come out with that win was a great boost for us going into this year,” junior guard Cameron Tatum said. “We’ve got a lot of doubters, and that’s fine, but I just hope guys can continue to stay focused and understand there’s a bigger prize at the end of the road.”
With the early season tournaments out of the way, Tennessee’s 3-point defense ranks best in the SEC at 26.8 percent and its field goal defense second best at 35.4 percent. The Vols are also pulling in an average 42.6 rebounds per game, thanks to an especially tough effort on the defensive boards.
“We’ve all made a better commitment to it. I think guys are really making a conscious effort to buckle down on defense and really give each other a lot of help,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, who was named Southeastern Conference player of the week for his performance in the NIT tournament.
Pearl knows Middle Tennessee could end up being a trap game for Tennessee tonight with the memories of playing at Madison Square Garden in New York still fresh and finals and a Dec. 11 date at No. 3 Pittsburgh looming.
The Blue Raiders (3-3) bring their own backcourt threat to Knoxville with their average 77.8 points per game, 43.6 percent shooting from the field and 33.6 percent shooting from behind the arc. Senior point guard James Washington averages 16.3 points per game and has hit 46.9 of his 3-point shots.
Pearl said the Vols have practiced well since returning from New York, which is key to putting the NIT Season Tip-Off victory behind them.
“It’s one thing to say it. It’s one thing to practice it. It’s another thing to do it,” Pearl said. “It’s definitely a trap game for us because of the excitement of playing in Madison Square Garden, the intensity, the media attention — it’s just human nature. Middle’s getting us at a really good time, and they know it.”