Have Vols transformed into ball-hawking defensive team?

The 14,000 or so fans who turned up at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday night and an ESPN2 audience witnessed a transformation of Tennessee’s basketball team. Will it last?

Only time will give us the answer to that question, but in talking to coach Rick Barnes and his staff after the Vols’ surprising 83-69 destruction of Florida, it appears that a page has been turned in the development of this team, and lest anyone try to turn that page back, there now exists one compelling reminder, a stunning game tape, that will serve as a reference point:

This is what happens when you accept your weaknesses, play to your strengths and try to dictate the flow of the game rather than have it dictated to you.

Suffice it to say that his first team in Knoxville must have been eating away the insides of Barnes, whose previous teams at Texas (especially), Clemson, Providence and George Mason were known for their defensive prowess. Before Wednesday night, despite Barnes’ urgings to the contrary, it didn’t appear the Vols were all that concerned about stopping their opponents. It was one thing for a smallish team to be outmanned in the post, but quite another for a team without a clear-cut height advantage, like Auburn, to bomb away from the perimeter and bury Tennessee in a barrage of 3-pointers.

But some good came out of that loss last Saturday to Auburn. Evidence of that came early against Florida, when the starting lineups where introduced. The Vols didn’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-5—not that Barnes has many options in the post—clear evidence he had decided to go with his best players regardless of size or position.

What this lineup change signaled was a defensive transformation. The Vols might have been at a vertical disadvantage, but in terms of length and athleticism, the starting five of Armani Moore, Kevin Punter, Robert Hubbs, Devon Baulkman and freshman Admiral Schofield were prepared to fly around the court, getting in passing lanes and contesting as many 3s as they could while still double- and sometimes even triple-teaming Florida’s post man John Egbunu.

Florida’s game plan had been to pound the ball into the paint. In his pre-game preparation, Gator coach Mike White couldn’t help but notice the Vols were vulnerable there. The first tape he watched was the Tennessee State game, where the Tigers’ Wayne Martin so bullied Tennessee freshman Kyle Alexander, who had been making genuine progress and playing an increasing amount of minutes, he’s been banished back to token appearances.

By starting basically five guards, Barnes forced his players to turn up the defensive heat several notches, to gang rebound and to attack the basket off the bounce, because there wasn’t any other way. The extra defensive pressure resulted in steals, and the penetration into the lane produced open looks for, among others, Kevin Punter, who knocked down his first seven shots, including a trio of 3-pointers.

White, who could have been coaching Tennessee had he accepted athletics director Dave Hart’s offer two years ago, was onto the changes immediately. He called a timeout after Florida’s first possession.

“I saw something,” White said.

White’s instinct proved to be correct. Riding the wave of a 16-0 advantage on points off turnovers and 51 percent shooting from the floor, the Vols stormed to a 53-31 first-half lead—this against a team that had been allowing 62 points and .375 percent shooting for an entire game.

Tennessee couldn’t duplicate that effort in the second half, but played well enough to coast to a surprising victory.

After the game, White was asked if he’d seen a different Tennessee team than the one he’d scouted on film.

“I don’t think they did anything differently [schematically],” White said. “They came out and punched us in the mouth and set a tone early. They were more excited to play than us, and that can’t happen. I thought they fed from some defensive energy.”

Thus that transformation we spoke about earlier. Has Tennessee become a ball-hawking, scrambling, opportunistic bunch that’s calling card is pressure D?

“It’s as simple as jumping to the ball,” Barnes said. “We weren’t doing that. Tonight was the first time we played a terrific team defense in the first half. Guys were getting to the gaps, guys were getting to the help line; they were working in the post.

“We have to have five guys moving all the time. We have to do a better job on our end, keeping guys fresh, because we’re asking them to play at the pace we want them to on offense and the energy that we have to put in on defense. We need our bench, we need everybody.”

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