Although the Big Orange shot well and rebounded well in dispatching Iowa, UMass and Mercer in the past week, the unquestioned key to each victory was defense. Check it out:
The Vols held the Hawkeyes without a field goal in overtime to win 78-65 in Round 1. They limited the Minutemen to 33.3 percent shooting (10 of 30) and forced 10 turnovers in building a 41-22 halftime lead that was never seriously threatened in Round 2. Tennessee then sent a message to Mercer in the opening seconds of Round 3, making a layup off a steal and forcing a shot-clock violation on the Bears' first two possessions. The Vols then forced another shot-clock violation on Mercer's final possession of the half en route to a 42-27 intermission lead.
Clearly, the Big Orange defense isn't just good; it's utterly disruptive. So, what's the difference between now and earlier this season?
"Energy and enthusiasm," junior post Jarnell Stokes said. "Guys are passionate about stopping their man, playing defense."
True. But even when the Vols fail at "stopping their man," a teammate is alert enough to rotate into position to prevent an easy drive to the basket. More than anything, this improved "help defense" is the biggest difference between Tennessee in November, December, January and February and Tennessee in March.
"We've just been playing team defense, helping each other out, talking," senior wing Jordan McRae said. "If somebody breaks down we have somebody ready to rotate and take charges. We're doing a great job of that right now."
Stokes agreed, noting: "We're holding each other accountable and trusting each other. When there is a breakdown we instantly solve it, go straight to the source."
Ah, yes … the source. For most of the year a Vol who blew a defensive assignment would hear about it from head coach Cuonzo Martin after the game. Now a player who blows an assignment hears about it from a teammate instantly. When reserve Derek Reese lost his man Sunday against Mercer he got an earful from McRae, who used to be the least motivated defender on the team. That didn't stop him from going off on Reese.
"No one is getting offended by that," Stokes said. "If we're holding each other accountable it's harder to make mistakes. We realize it's not OK. You can't let the coach be the only one telling you what's good and what's bad on the defensive end."
Although Tennessee has played its best defense of the three-year Cuonzo Martin era in the NCAA Tournament, it didn't start out that way. The Vols were shredded by Iowa in the opening minutes of their tourney opener, quickly falling behind 16-4. Tennessee eventually plugged the leaks, however, then absolutely smothered the Hawkeyes in overtime, outscoring them 14-1.
"It gave us a confidence boost because we held them to one point in overtime," junior wing Josh Richardson said. "We're a defensive-oriented team, so holding Iowa to one point in five minutes is a big thing."
Confidence in your defense is just as crucial as confidence in your offense. Tennessee proved this in Round 2. Riding the momentum of the Iowa overtime, the Vols limited UMass to eight points in the game's first eight minutes en route to a 21-8 lead.
Still, the ultimate tribute to Tennessee's defense was the opening minutes of its Round 3 game with Mercer. Senior point guard Antonio Barton intercepted a pass and drove for a layup on the Bears' opening possession. When the Vols forced a shot-clock violation on Mercer's second possession, then got a three-point play to go up 5-0, the Bears seemed to unravel.
"I wanted to set the tone early," Barton said. "My guys always tell me it starts with me on the defensive end and I've got to set the tone early."
Richardson believes it's up to all of Tennessee's backcourt players to set the defensive tone early.
"I feel like it starts with all of the guards – pressuring the ball on the perimeter," he said. "The big guys have been playing pretty good post defense, so I think the big tone-setters are on the perimeter."
McRae also thinks team defense starts with the guards.
"It does," he said. "If we're getting beat off the dribble we put a lot of pressure on Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell to foul, and we don't want those guys getting in foul trouble … especially because of us."
Informed of Richardson's and McRae's comments, Barton agreed.
"It starts with me, Josh and Jordan," he said. "The guards bring the ball down the court, so we've got to set the intensity of guarding the ball ASAP."
Tennessee's guards must be doing a pretty good job in that regard because the last eight opponents have combined to average just 54.0 points per game. The obvious question: What has made the Vol defense so impregnable?
"There's more of a sense of urgency on every possession," Richardson said. "I think we've just been playing together a lot more."
The Vols will need to play with great urgency and togetherness against a potent Michigan team in Friday's Sweet 16 play at Indianapolis. They believe they are up to the task.
"Right now we're at the top of our game defensively," Barton said, "but we can still get better. That's what we strive to do."