Vols look to start fast today

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Like an old car battery on a frigid morning, Tennessee’s basketball team seems inclined to slow starts. That’s a trend the Vols hope to break when they face Santa Clara today at noon in Round 1 of the Orlando Classic.

Tennessee’s knack for bad beginnings showed up in the first exhibition game. The Vols trailed Pikeville of the NAIA 15-6 before rallying to take control of the game in the second half.

Exhibition No. 2 was more of the same as Tennessee made just 2 of its first 13 field-goal tries and trailed NAIA member Lenoir-Rhyne 11-6.

The arrival of the regular season saw Tennessee fall behind Virginia Commonwealth 26-15 en route to a 38-20 halftime deficit. A second-half rally proved too little, too late, and the Vols dropped their opener 85-69.

The Big Orange made it four tentative take-offs in a row in the home opener, falling behind Texas Southern 13-7 and managing a mere 30-all tie by intermission.

So, what’s the problem?

“We’re just coming out flat,” senior guard Josh Richardson told InsideTennessee. “We were flat again the first half (versus Texas Southern). It’s energy. We’ve just got to bring more energy the first half.”

Backcourt mate Kevin Punter believes he and Richardson deserve much of the blame for the sluggish beginnings.

“I think it starts with the guards,” Punter said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to get in that 1 gap and put a lot of ball pressure on. Coach is on me a lot about that but it’s a challenge and I accept it. I’m just going to keep growing.”

Head coach Donnie Tyndall utilizes full-court pressure to create turnovers for the opponent and transition baskets for Tennessee. This strategy kicks in during a game’s final 10 minutes. During a game’s first 10 minutes, however, the Vols seem lethargic on both offense and defense.

“For us, defensively, the key is to get into people and just speeding ‘em faster from the beginning of the game,” Punter said. “We’re still growing with it, and I think we’re a lot better.”

Junior wing Armani Moore notes that two games into the regular season is hardly time to panic. Still, he’s a little concerned by the Vols’ penchant for flat starts.

“We don’t really want to make this a habit,” he said. “Several games we’ve really started out slow. I feel like we’re still getting a groove for it but eventually we’ve got to learn how to pick it up and learn how to play a full game.”

With a new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes, plus eight new players, you can make a case that the Vols are suffering from a lack of familiarity.

“I don’t think it’s us getting used to each other,” Moore said. “I just think we’ve really got to focus on the task at hand and get our minds into the game. We come out there a whole lot of times just kind of lackadaisical. Once we get settled down and get further into the season I feel like we’ll start putting a whole game together.”

Fortunately for the Vols, their penchant for slow starts has been accompanied by a similarly strong penchant for big finishes. Tennessee’s defensive pressure tends to wear down opponents, causing them to fade at game’s end.

“When we see them wearing down we want to keep pushing and keep pushing until they quit basically,” Punter said. “Coach actually told us to back off (late in the Texas Southern game) and I was kind of mad.

“I guess we were winning by enough and he said ‘Ease up.’ I wish we still would’ve stayed in ‘smoke’ (full-court pressure) but it’s all right.”

GAME NOTES: Tennessee (1-1) heads into today’s game ranking 15th nationally in offensive rebounds with an average of 18.0 per game. The Vols are forcing 15.5 turnovers per game…. Santa Clara is coached by Kerry Keating, who was a Tennessee assistant under Buzz Peterson in 2001-02 and 2002-03…. The Orlando Classic represents a homecoming for Vol junior Derek Reese, who grew up in Orlando and attended Olympia High School. Freshman teammate Willie Carmichael grew up in nearby Apopka…. Tipoff for today’s game is noon with TV coverage provided by ESPN2.

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