Six games into their 2014-15 basketball schedule the Tennessee Vols already are packing it in.
Not their season; just their zone.
After fouling to excess and giving up a bunch of easy shots in back-to-back losses to Kansas and Marquette, the Vols have packed in their 1-3-1 defense to try and keep opponents from getting (a) fouls and (b) easy shots.
To say the adjustment worked might be the understatement of the season. In Game 6 against Kansas State the Vols held the Wildcats without a field goal for a span of 11 minutes and 27 seconds in the first half. During that stretch KSU was 0 for 6 from the floor with eight turnovers. The Wildcats finished the first half with a 25-percent shooting percentage and 13 turnovers. Fans were so impressed by Tennessee’s defensive prowess that many of them gave a standing ovation as the Vols left the floor for intermission.
Tennessee couldn’t maintain that sort of intensity for 40 minutes, of course, but its second-half defense was still pretty good. As a result, Kansas State finished with 22 turnovers – most by a Vol foe since 2008. The Big Orange, meanwhile, finished with 12 steals, nine blocks and a much-needed 65-64 victory.
Simply put, Saturday’s performance against KSU was one of the best defensive efforts in the history of Thompson-Boling Arena. That’s amazing, considering how mediocre the Vol defense was in Games 1 through 5. Opponents were penetrating the 1-3-1 zone at will and shooting an alarming number of free throws against a Tennessee team that ranked dead last among 344 major-college programs in fouls at 26.2 per game.
Tennessee has good length on the perimeter – 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson, 6-foot-4 Kevin Punter, 6-foot-5 Armani Moore — so Tyndall decided to move the three of them closer to the basket. “Packing in” the zone gives opponents more open looks from 3-point range but less room to drive into the lane.
“With the trouble we’ve had fouling, the trouble guarding the dribble and people getting inside our zone, we backed it up one big step,” Tyndall explained, adding that this allows the long arms of Richardson, Punter and Moore to “wear on some people by getting in passing lanes.”
This small adjustment made a big difference against Kansas State. With less floor to cover and a small but vocal home crowd cheering them, the Vols’ fullcourt press/1-3-1 zone flustered the visiting Wildcats and took them completely out of their offense in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“The crowd was great,” Tyndall said. “They gave us that extra energy that makes our press a little bit more active. That was a big part of it. Your press is always a little bit better at home. We did some things from a game-plan standpoint to shrink the floor in the halfcourt and not get quite as extended in our zone. We played a few possessions of man-to-man, as well.
“The biggest thing is, we shrunk the floor, we were able to get in passing lanes and we did a pretty good job of doubling down on the post when the ball did go inside."
"It has man-to-man principles, too, so it’s different. It’s very odd. If you run a set play it’s hard to score on it." — Derek Reese on Vols defense
Tyndall’s version of the 1-3-1 zone won him a lot of games at Morehead State and Southern Miss because of its uniqueness. Figuring out how to attack it is no small challenge.
“It’s not just a normal 1-3-1,” junior forward Derek Reese explained. “It has man-to-man principles, too, so it’s different. It’s very odd. If you run a set play it’s hard to score on it.”
Learning to play Tyndall’s zone is almost as difficult as learning to attack it. The Vols struggled mightily in Games 1-5 but showed dramatic improvement in Game 6.
“We’re getting better with the zone,” Punter said. “We’re understanding it a lot better – where to be at, timing and stuff like that. Most teams haven’t seen our zone before, so it bothers them a lot.
“I don’t know what it’s like to play against because it’s hard to gauge in practice, but if we do what we’re told and go hard I’m sure we’ll give a lot of teams problems.”
Gaining familiarity with Tyndall’s zone would be a bit simpler if the Vols weren’t also gaining familiarity with one another. Trying to blend eight newcomers with four holdovers has heightened the learning curve.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of teamwork,” Punter said. “If one person is not in the right position it could lead to points. It’s real important for everyone to be in their right position, so it can work effectively.”
Tennessee’s new-look zone gets a big test Sunday at 2, when the Vols (3-3) host No. 15 Butler (8-1). The Big Orange is no juggernaut on offense, so it must get another strong effort from the defense in order to compete. Reese is optimistic that Tennessee’s 1-3-1 is up to the challenge.
“We’ve packed it inside, so that any time someone drives to the paint we have someone helping,” he said. “We’re trapping the post more. Basically, we’re keeping everything outside the paint. They (opponents) are getting more 3s but it’s a lower percentage than layups.”
There’s no arguing with that logic.