Morphing defense could be Tennessee’s calling card this season

This time of year, practice having only recent started and games still a few weeks away, college basketball coaches often talk about how their team’s defense is ahead of its offense. Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall is no different, but it’s a refrain he might be stuck on all season.

That’s because the Vols’ defense might have to carry them.

This isn’t to suggest there aren’t players on this team that can score. Senior Josh Richardson proved he could be an elite scorer during an impressive run in the NCAA tournament last season. Junior college transfer Kevin Punter has scoring skills from the perimeter and the midrange. Freshman Detrick Mostella has a unique combination of jumping—and jump-shooting—ability.

But Tennessee doesn’t have what might be considered pure shooters, and it definitely doesn’t have a post threat that can catch a ball in traffic, turn and pound the ball in the basket. At least not until sophomore Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson drops a few more pounds and gains enough stamina so three trips up and down the floor won’t leave him gasping for breath.

Yes, chances are good the calling card of Tyndall’s first Tennessee team will be defense. That’s partly because, for all the Vols’ other shortcomings, they have length and athleticism in abundant supply. But it’s also because defense, Tyndall style, is a rare combination of full-court pressure and half-court zone.

The press and the zone work in concert, and both are hard for opponents to solve. The press can be utilized to speed up the game, net some quick steals and easy baskets to take the pressure off the Vols’ offense. But far more often, it’s a nuisance press that keeps a team from getting into its offense quickly and figuring out what sort of zone it’s facing in the half court.

“Our press and our zone have always helped us control tempo,” said Tyndall, who began playing a zone when he was coaching Morehead State, brought it with him to Southern Miss and is about to unleash it at Tennessee. “Not that we want to play to slow. We want to get the game to the tempo we like to play.”

Tyndall’s zone could take on many forms. Its origins come from Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has mixed zone and man to great effect the last few seasons. When Tyndall was at Morehead, he had to figure out a way to keep his best player and shot blocker, Kenneth Faried, closer to the rim and out of foul trouble, and that’s when he hit on the idea of the zone. Tyndall even raided Pitino’s staff for an assistant coach, Matt Grady, who helped install the zone, which worked so well the Eagles knocked the Cardinals out of the 2011 NCAA tournament.

Over the years, Tyndall has tweaked the zone and has even incorporated some man-to-man principles.

“It’s a unique and different defense,” Tyndall said. “Not trying to sound like I’ve invented the wheel, but I do think it’s been good to us and helped us keep teams out of rhythm.

“The biggest thing it’s going to do for us is negate our lack of a physical post presence. We don’t have that strong, physical guy. Teams, even bigger teams, aren’t going to be able to pound the ball inside against us.”

It’s no surprise that, over the last three seasons, one at Morehead State and two at Southern Miss, opponents have taken 40 percent of their shots from behind 3. If a team’s having a hot night from behind the arc, that might mean trouble. But often, opponents are taking hurried 3s late in the shot clock because the press has delayed them getting into their offense.

“Once you get that shot clock to 25 [seconds], they cross half court, get the ball back to the point guard, and the first pass in the offense is at 20,” said Tennessee assistant coach Adam Howard, who has been with Tyndall since Morehead State. “One or two ball reversals and they’re going to have to look to get a quick shot. Our zone eliminates post players catching the ball in the post, and it keeps our guys out of foul trouble around the rim.”

Tyndall’s zone differs from that of say, the 2-3 favored by the game’s leading practitioner of the defense, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim. The Tennessee zone could start as a 2-3, but it could morph into three other variations, plus man to man.

And that full-court pressure? It too is ever changing, with three variations.

“Depending on how they attack our press, we could go to a 2-2-1 zone press and try to slow the clock down a little bit,” Howard said. “And if they’ve got a guy in foul trouble and don’t have their primary ball handler in the game, we’ll go to a man-to-man full-court press to try to speed them up a little bit.”

Tyndall and his staff face a tough task this season, going to war in the Southeastern Conference largely with a team they had to scramble to put together in a month last spring. But Tyndall is used to taking unheralded players, coaching them up, plugging them into the press and zone and winning. In the last six seasons at Morehead and Southern Miss, Tyndall’s teams have averaged nearly 24 wins. In his only two seasons at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles were 27-10 and 29-7.

“Of the jobs I’ve had, we haven’t had the best players,” Tyndall said. “They’ve been tough jobs, and I’ve had good players, but not the best. The pressing gave us an opportunity to take some time off the clock, and use our athleticism to create steals. And when [opponents] did get the ball across [the half-court line] they start their offense at 20 seconds, which is a ball reversal or two and then go try to make a play.

“That makes it hard to crack that zone. It’s really about four zones in one, depending on what people are running against it. It takes a while for our kids to learn it. That’s why my team last year at Southern Miss was so good. I returned four starters, and those guys had it down. We were beating teams we probably shouldn’t have beaten it early, because those kids were like machines.”