UT hosts Auburn

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When Tennessee replaced offensive-minded showman Bruce Pearl with defensive-minded stoic Cuonzo Martin last March a lot of folks figured Thompson-Boling Arena would be so quiet this season that you could hear a basketball dribble.

They were wrong.

Heading into tonight's 6 o'clock tipoff against visiting Auburn, Martin has instilled an appreciation for defense in Tennessee's players that appears to have spread to Tennessee's fans.

The last three homes games saw the Vols score just 67 points against No. 13 Florida, 62 against No. 2 Kentucky and 60 against No. 13 Connecticut, yet the crowd was vocal and animated each time. Instead of sitting on their hands waiting for a spectacular offensive play, fans cheered when the Vols shut off a drive, deflected a pass or forced the opponent to launch from long range as the shot clock was dwindling.

Spurred by the home crowd, Tennessee shocked Florida, scared the heck out of Kentucky and stunned UConn with a low-scoring, defensive-minded style of play. Interestingly enough, the Vols held the Gators (56), the Wildcats (65) and the Huskies (57) to season-low scoring totals. Clearly, Tennessee's players have bought into Martin's D-emphasis. So have Tennessee's fans.

Redshirt senior Cameron Tatum, who was part of four Pearl teams, described the UConn crowd as "awesome," adding: "It was like an old-school crowd when I first got here as a freshman. I definitely commend them for that. The crowd is definitely a booster for us."

Vol crowds in years past often waited for a dazzling play or a 10-0 run to cheer. Now they routinely applaud a good defensive stand. Tennessee's players have noticed this trend and find it refreshing.

"Most college fans, if you get a big dunk or hit a 3, they cheer real loud," freshman Josh Richardson said. "But when we get defensive stops here, it gets everybody going, too."

Sophomore point guard Trae Golden also has noticed Vol fans' newfound appreciation for defense.

"We can definitely tell it," he said. "That (hard-nosed defense) is something we work on a lot, so we're glad it's noticed."

Junior guard Skylar McBee credits the fans for making Thompson-Boling Arena a tough place to visit this year. He thought they were instrumental in the upset of UConn.

"I thought when the game got really close, they kind of pushed the noise level up," he said. "It really helped us and brought us a lot of energy. We have one of the best crowds in the nation."

Richardson agreed, noting: "They cheered everything against Connecticut ... timeouts even. That was a fun game."

Since Richardson joined the lineup six games ago, the Vol defense has grown some teeth. It limited Florida to 35.7 percent, held Mississippi State to 44.0 percent in Starkville, limited Kentucky to 42.9 percent, held Georgia to 34.9 percent in Athens, limited UConn to 36.4 percent, then held Vanderbilt to 42.6 percent Tuesday night in Nashville.

Statistically, Tennessee's defensive improvement in recent weeks is dramatic. The Vols allowed four of their first nine opponents to shoot 48 percent or better from the field — Duke (48.1), Memphis (51.4), Austin Peay (59.1), College of Charleston (49.0) — losing each time en route to a 3-6 start. Conversely, they have allowed just one opponent to top the 44-percent mark in the past 11 games, going 6-5 during that stretch.

"I think our defense gives us a chance to play with anybody," McBee said. "You play a lot of guys, especially in this league, that are really talented offensively. I think if we can neutralize them like we're doing, we're going to have a chance to win a lot of games. As long as we keep it a low score, keep teams under 40 percent, we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."

Tatum says Tennessee is playing a different level of defense under Martin than it ever did under Pearl, a topic he and former Vol J.P. Prince discuss on a regular basis.

"We talk about it all the time," Tatum said. "Nothing against Coach Pearl and that staff because we did play defense when we had to, but if it was as strict as it is now it would've been a totally different ball club."

Richardson believes the Vols have adopted the hard-nosed mindset of their coach.

"We've picked up our game and our intensity on defense," he said. "We've picked up our effort in practice and games. Our mentally is that if we don't get a bucket, you're not going to get a bucket."

Blessed with a 6-foot-6 frame and surprising quickness, Richardson is a tenacious perimeter defender and a key reason the Vols rank No. 3 in SEC games for field-goal defense (39.7 percent) and 3-point defense (30.0 percent). He was never better than in last Saturday's 60-57 upset of Connecticut, helping limit dynamic Huskies guards Shabazz Napier (6 of 18) and Jeremy Lamb (8 of 17) to a combined 14 of 35 from the floor.

"We could tell they were frustrated; we were in their ear the whole time," Richardson recalled with a smile. "We figured we were the tougher team. I was talking to 'em, trying to get into their heads a little bit."

Now that the Vols understand how to play good defense, junior forward Jeronne Maymon says they understand how critical it is to their success.

"We're at the point now where we know how to play defense and we know we need to get consistent stops," he said. "It's just a point of us keeping our mental focus sharp and ready so that we don't have mental breakdowns."

After enduring a lot of mental breakdowns on defense in November and December, Tennessee has become significantly stingier in January. The Vols aren't surprised by the marked improvement they've made.

"If you had been there every day of preseason and seen the things that we did, it's a whole lot easier to understand," McBee said. "I honestly don't think there's any college basketball team in the nation that outworked us in the preseason, especially on the defensive end. We put in the work, so we're confident in what we're doing."

That confidence should come in handy tonight against Auburn.

NOTES: Tennessee brings a 9-11 overall record and a 1-4 SEC mark into today's game. Auburn is 12-8 and 2-4.... Tennessee has won nine of the last 10 meetings in the series, including the last six in a row.... Maymon is shooting 61.0 percent from the field in SEC games, leading the league in that category.... Auburn ranks dead last among the 12 SEC teams in scoring at 55.2 points per conference game.... The Tigers' key player is Kenny Gabriel, a 6-foot-8, 209-pounder who averages 11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. The other projected starters are 6-foot-10, 242-pound Rob Chubb (9.2 points per game), 6-foot-7, 209-pound Josh Langford (5.2 ppg), 6-foot-1, 206-pound Frankie Sullivan (12.4 ppg) and 5-foot-10, 170-pound Josh Wallace (3.4 ppg).... Tonight's game will be televised by ESPN2.

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