Slow feet = defeat

There are two schools of thought in recruiting: (A) Sign only players who fit your scheme. (B) Sign the best players you can, then adapt your scheme to fit their strengths and weaknesses.

Tennessee's Bruce Pearl admittedly subscribes to Plan B. Although it produced an unprecedented Elite Eight visit last March, it produced mostly disappointment last month. Pearl's team has lost four of its past six games, mostly because the Vols' lanky guards routinely are being schooled by opponents with smaller, quicker, better-shooting backcourt players.

Exhibit A was Friday's 91-78 home-floor loss to College of Charleston. Cougar guards Andrew Goudelock and Donavan Monroe penetrated at will, combined to sink 10 of 14 shots from 3-point range and scored 58 points between them.

"The games we lost were all against guards that penetrated well and exposed our defense," Vol senior Josh Bone said. "We all need to get better on defense. That's it."

Charleston killed Tennessee with a two-man game. Goudelock and Monroe essentially took turns attacking the basket. If Tennessee's help stopped the penetrator short of the rim, he merely passed the ball back outside to his running mate for an open 3-pointer.

Pearl put it this way: "On a lot of their shots we were getting beat off the bounce, rotated, then they kicked and made shots."

Upon replacing Buzz Peterson six years ago, Pearl inherited two guards who were ideally suited to his run-and-gun style of play - 6-foot-3 JaJuan Smith and 6-foot-2 Chris Lofton.

Smith was perhaps the perfect fit for Pearl's scheme - explosive in transition, excellent beyond the 3-point arc and tenacious as a defender. Lofton, the greatest perimeter shooter in UT history, wasn't particularly quick but developed into a quality defender by playing with superior technique and savvy.

Smith and Lofton ran out of eligibility after helping Tennessee post a program record 31 victories in 2007-08, however, and Tennessee has been competing with taller, slower wings ever since. These included 6-foot-7 J.P. Prince, 6-foot-7 Scotty Hopson and 6-foot-6 Cameron Tatum. All three are quality players who have contributed significantly for the Vols. But all three have lacked the explosive quickness and shooting range to excel in Pearl's system the way Lofton and Smith did.

For instance, Lofton shot 42.2 percent from 3 for his career and Smith 37.2 percent. Conversely, Prince shot a mere 22.5 percent from beyond the arc. Both Hopson and Tatum are shooting 34.1 percent for their careers.

"With my early teams we could spread it and shoot it," Pearl said. "Great 3-point shooting teams spread you out."

In addition, the Lofton/Smith teams scored an awful lot of their points in transition situations following turnovers. Lofton averaged 48 steals per season and Smith 67 steals per season in his two years as a starter. Prince averaged 52 steals per season as a starter, and Tatum has 52 steals in 23 career starts. Hopson, however, has just 65 steals to show for 79 career starts.

Fewer steals means fewer transition opportunities, which means fewer easy buckets. Tennessee's lack of backcourt quickness is forcing the Vols to play a slower pace these days. That means opponents have more time to set their defense (usually a tightly packed zone) and force the Big Orange to rely on set plays.

"There's been a lot more pressure on our halfcourt offense because we're taking the ball out of the net a lot more," Pearl said. "We're not getting as much in transition."

Tennessee may pick up the pace next season, since the backcourt projects to feature more raw speed. Explosive freshman Jordan McRae should have a bigger role in 2010-11, while November guard signees Chris Jones and Kevin Ware also are blessed with superior quickness.

Until then, however, Pearl must make the best of the personnel he has. Toward that end, he vows to put players with quick feet on the floor and players with slow feet on the bench:

"The decisions as far as personnel will come down to this: The guys that can defend and move their feet will play. The guys that can't, won't."


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