Tennessee working on defense, healing from injuries

Rick Barnes and his team use a mini-break to work defensively and rehab from injuries.

Kevin Punter has done a lot of watching and waiting recently, much to his chagrin. 

It's been 10 days since he and the rest of his Tennessee  team have played an actual game, losing two matchups against George Washington and Nebraska in the Barclay's Center Classin Brooklyn in late November, and in the time since, Punter has watched a lot of other teams across the country and looked intrinsically at where his team needs to get better.

"It kind of sucks, because you want to play, but it is what it is," Punter said. "You get to really see, I don't want to say negative, but you get to see where you need to improve in the most. You watch a lot of teams win and lose games, and in the back of your mind, you have a break, so you can kind of look at how other guys play and understand when we get back on the floor how important it is."

For Rick Barnes, that improvement starts on the boards and on the defensive side of the court. Tennessee averages 40.3 rebounds a game, tied for 77th nationally, and has struggled to guard teams effectively in its first seven games. 

"We have added some things, but a big part of what we do is really trying to stay in front of the ball," Barnes said. "We keep our positions so we can rebound the ball." 

The practice sessions during the break have centered mainly on defense, where Tennessee has focused on improving on the offensive glass and guarding with help. Barnes also went back to the fundamentals, beginning practice Sunday with basic passing drills and keying in on physicality under the rim to improve the Vols' rebounding.

"Learning to play defense is no different than trying to shoot the ball," Barnes said. "You've got to get reps and reps after reps. Really, it's a willingness to want to defend somebody. We're not asking anyone to guard the ball by themselves. We want to have really good support behind us. When you let people just go right by you without any resistance, it's virtually impossible to rebound the ball." 

Barnes's team is also using the extended layoff to get his roster fully healthy. Robert Hubbs III had arthroscopic knee surgery during the break and is now rehabilitating as he slowly gets back to being game ready. 

"He's good. He's doing great," Barnes said. "Our expectations (for him to be back) are to be as soon as possible, but we're not going to put him in a position to where we don't give the surgery a chance to be sucessful. He's doing what he needs to do. Hopefully he'll be back for the next game." 

The Vols will end their mini-break Saturday against No. 18 Butler in Indianapolis, but the extra time to prepare was a welcomed scheduling quick, especially to the younger players on the team.

"It's always good to have time to get better," freshman center Kyle Alexander said. "It's good for us. It's good for all of us, putting some work in, doing some extra work with the coaches so we can improve for the next game. I don't think it's bad." 

As for Rick Barnes' thoughts on the extended break?

"I think it's difficult for the guys because our practices are probably harder than the games," Barnes said. "They'd probably tell you they'd like to play every day as opposed to going to practice."

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