Vols visit Virginia

You wont' find better coverage of Vol hoops than right here at InsideTennessee. Check out this free read on tonight's game:

Even if you have a great fastball, you throw curves when the guy in the batter's box is known to struggle with breaking pitches.

The same logic applies to basketball. Even if you have a good man-to-man defense, you play zone if the opponent is known to struggle with it.

That's why Virginia may venture from its standard man-to-man tonight against visiting Tennessee. Given how utterly inept the Vols were against Georgetown's zone in a 37-36 loss last Friday night, the Cavaliers would be crazy not to. Tennessee made just six first-half field goals and shot a frigid 32.6 percent against the Hoyas.

"Other teams are probably going to play a zone because of how bad we did," Vol sophomore Jarnell Stokes conceded, subsequently adding: "I feel like Virginia's going to try some zone. If they watched the Georgetown game they should try it."

Stokes managed just three shot attempts (making two) versus the Hoyas. He was understandably embarrassed that Tennessee mustered just 36 points in 40 minutes, noting: "That's worse than middle school."

Senior guard Skylar McBee couldn't remember the last time he played for a team that scored so few points in a game, either.

"I don't know if I've ever been part of a game where we just scored 36 points," he said. "But if we get out of there (winning) 38-37 people aren't as sour about it because we won the game. No matter how ugly it is, as long as we get the win that's what's important."

True. But supporters seem a lot less discouraged by an exciting, high-scoring loss than a dull, low-scoring loss.

"Fans want to see points," McBee conceded. "They want a game to be 110-109 rather than 37-36. But I thought both teams played really good defense."

Tennessee will see another good defense tonight. Virginia ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 52.9 points per game. The Cavaliers accomplish this by playing a deliberate tempo and sticking almost exclusively with man-to-man defense.

"They don't really play zone," Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think they've shown a 1-3-1 twice this season but they're a man-to-man team."

Tennessee also struggled with zone defenses in Martin's first year at the Vol helm, 2011-12. There were a couple of notable exceptions, however.

"South Carolina played a matchup-type zone," the head man recalled, "and I thought we did a good job."

Indeed. Tennessee shot 50 percent from the field (19 of 38) and from 3-point range (10 of 20) in beating the Gamecocks 69-57 Feb. 8 in Knoxville, then shot 52.2 percent from the field (24 of 46) and 50 percent from 3-point range (7 of 14) in winning the Feb. 25 rematch at Columbia by a 73-64 score. Still, the Vols had 14 assists and 14 turnovers in the former, 15 assists and 21 turnovers in the latter.

One reason Tennessee tends to struggle with zone defenses is that Martin is strictly a man-to-man guy. His teams don't play zone in games, so they don't see it a lot in practice. That changed this week, however, in the wake of the putrid effort against Georgetown.

"Coach really stressed zone (offense) and moving the ball," Stokes said. "I think he feels like we've been doing good on defense but now it's time to pick up our offensive production."

Martin and his assistants reportedly devoted much of practice this week to improving Tennessee's zone offense.

"They gave us a lot of pointers that we didn't know going into the game," Stokes said, later adding: "We should've passed the ball quicker. I think we telegraphed a lot of our passes, and that gave them (Hoyas) a heads-up on where the next pass was going. And the high post was open throughout the whole game; we just didn't hit the high post."

Actually, Tennessee didn't do a lot of things it needed to against Georgetown's zone. Failing to either pass the ball inside or drive the ball inside, Vol guards settled for long-range jump shots. They failed at that, too, going 3 for 16 from 3-point range.

"We work on penetration all the time, against man and zone," Martin said. "You have to have the ability to attack and be aggressive. That has to be your nature. But, ultimately, you have to be able to make perimeter shots."

Against Georgetown the Vols didn't make perimeter shots, didn't feed the post and didn't convert on drives to the basket. That's why they finished with just 36 points and twice as many turnovers (13) as assists (6).

"We did struggle with it at Georgetown but you've got to recognize that not many teams can play a zone like Georgetown," McBee said. "I mean, how many teams do you know that can be 6-9 across the board? We do have to work on finding holes in a zone and being better against it.

"I just don't know how much zone Virginia is going to play."

If they managed to stay awake while watching tape of the Tennessee-Georgetown game, the Cavaliers might play a lot.

GAME NOTES: Virginia brings a five-game winning streak and a 6-2 record into tonight's game. The Cavaliers beat four mid-majors and just one high-major during the streak, however, topping Wisconsin 60-54.... Virginia's top players are 6-foot-6, 211-pound Joe Harris and 6-foot-8, 234-pound Akil Mitchell. Harris averages 16.5 points per game and is shooting a sizzling 46.3 percent (19 of 41) from behind the 3-point arc. Mitchell averages 12.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, the latter figure ranking fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.... Virginia leads the all-time series with Tennessee 7-4 but the Vols won the last meeting 77-74 in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.... Tonight's game tips off at 7 p.m. with television coverage provided by ESPN3.

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