"Melvin's on-the-ball defense is fabulous," head coach Bruce Pearl said following Sunday evening's practice.
Teammate Scotty Hopson conceded the point, noting: "Melvin has been phenomenal defensively. He knows his role on this basketball team, and that's to get everybody involved and play great defense on the better point guards we play. I think he takes pride in doing it, and I think that's one reason why he's successful at it. He's been great for us."
By disrupting the point guard, Goins essentially stops the opponents' offense before it can get started. That makes playing defense a lot easier for his Vol teammates. As senior center Brian Williams put it: "That's who starts the play. Without your point guard, you can't execute nothing."
Goins hasn't always been a defensive dynamo. For much of his career he was more concerned with scoring points than preventing them. He averaged 18 points per game as a high school senior in San Diego, spent a year at Ball State, then averaged 17.2 points per game at Mount San Jacinto (Calif.) Community College.
"He was a great scorer in high school and junior college," Pearl noted, adding that Goins developed his defensive prowess "through the physicality and development of his body and his understanding and his leadership. Basically, Melvin's a competitor."
That's obvious. Goins approaches defense with the same enthusiasm and determination that most players exhibit only on offense.
"That's something I pride myself in," he said. "I know defense is a key part of our team that Coach stresses. I know it starts with me being the point guard and the senior leader of this team, so I try to get it going defensively and get my team in the mindset to defend."
That strategy is working. The 2010-11 Vols are limiting opponents to 36.8-percent shooting from the field, 29.7-percent shooting from 3 and 66.6 points per game. And it all starts with Melvin Goins frustrating the opposing point guard.
"It's a lot on me," he conceded. "Even if I'm not getting steals, it's important for me to disrupt their offense. The point guard starts the offense, so being able to disrupt the timing of the play is key for us."
Sometimes Goins disrupts opposing point guards by being physical. Sometimes he disrupts them by being verbal, talking a little trash to produce a distraction.
"Getting in his head is important," Goins said. "You want to disrupt a player as much as possible - be physical with him, let him know you're going to be there all night ... you're going to make every little thing hard for him ... you're not going to let him get comfortable or let anything come easy. When you're playing defense you always want to disrupt a guy and get him off his game."
There are bigger, quicker, more gifted players throughout college hoops, yet few are Goins' equal as defenders. This is because he understands that playing great defense is a mental challenge, as well as a physical challenge.
"You need the will to defend, the will to stop your man," he said. "You need to be a competitor, and you need good technique and footwork to be in the right position to stop your man."
Goins has the will to defend and the will to stop his man. He has the competitive drive, the good technique and the footwork. That's why he is the catalyst for a surprisingly good Vol defense. When asked if he can remember Tennessee defending this well previously, Williams shook his head emphatically.
"Never ... never in my four years here," the senior center said. "My first two years we was an offensive team, and we definitely lacked defense and rebounding. That's why we're winning the big games the past two years - because our defense has picked up dramatically."