Road to Roundball Recovery

It doesn't yet have a catchy moniker like Buzz Ball, but Bruce Pearl's brand of basketball will catch on quickly at Tennessee, where the legacy of athletic excellence has always been built on rock-solid defense.

Think the best of Tennessee football and you conjure up images of a host of Volunteers swarming the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Think the best of Lady Vols' basketball and the minds eye visualizes an open court steal, a transition basket followed by a full-court press. Think the best of UT men's basketball and you recall Ray Mears' magical, mystical 1-3-1 zone moving like a single entity, denying opponents access to their goal.

Big Orange blood is type-D. It rushes through the veins of any Tennessee fan who has ever stood and cheered a big defensive play. It was a philosophy for success brought to the Hill by a General, practiced by a hardwood Wizard and perfected by a Summitt.

Defining Buzz Ball is difficult. The only components that seemed consistent about it were a high turnover-to-assist ratio, poor shot selection, weak road performances and eleventh hour defeats. It wasn't about defense, pressure or otherwise. Buzz Ball simply lacked distinction and therefore defies definition. It's enduring memory is of three veterans, who also happened to be UT's three leading scorers, passing up open looks with the clock ticking down and Tennessee trailing George Mason by two points in the first round of the 2004 NIT.

As difficult as it is to describe Buzz Ball, imagine how confusing it must have been to play? How do you perform in a system that appeared to lack a prime directive or clear focus? For that matter, how do you convince a prospect to play in it or even know what type of player to recruit?

There is no such ambiguity or uncertainty about Bruce Ball. It combines in-your-face pressure defense with an up tempo offensive pace in a war of will and attrition. It was Vince Lombardi who said: "fatigue makes cowards of us all" — Bruce Pearl puts a team on the floor that is dedicated to proving that assertion. It does so by confronting the opponent from baseline to baseline, pushing the ball every opportunity and going after any loose ball like the game depended on it. In short, it is an attacking style of basketball that exacts a physical and psychological toll.

Obviously, Pearl won't have the type of players needed to maximize his brand of basketball next season, but Tennessee should be a better team because several returning players will be better suited to play a full throttle game that spreads the floor rather than the stagnant half-court grind played under Peterson.

Point guard C.J. Watson operates much better in open court than attempting to break down a defense packed around the paint. It's no accident he had his best game of his college career in the SEC Tournament against Kentucky when the Vols were forced into a catch-up mode.

Likewise, Chris Lofton will get better shots from behind the arc by trailing the fast break than by scraping off picks in the half-court offense. Until the Vols develop a scoring threat in the post, Lofton's best chance to increase his production is as a trail man in transition.

Andre Patterson is another player better suited to an up tempo offense than he is banging bigger bodies on the blocks. He runs the floor well and can use his quickness to exploit the baseline before the defense gets set or to follow up missed shots in transition.

Obviously, an offense can't live by transition alone. There will be times that opponents will close down that option or UT won't get the defensive boards needed to spark a break. The Vols will have to become more adept in its half-court offense to remain viable. However you can translate some of the transition game to the half court by spreading the floor and with better spacing. This forces the defense to play the entire front court and can create driving lanes as well as the space needed for effective interior passing. This was one of UT's key weaknesses under Peterson and any improvement will mean better production.

Pearl has also let it be known that he plans to use his bench in order to sustain an up tempo game. Such an approach offers several advantages. Fresh second-line players are often the equal to fatigued first-line players. Under Peterson, the Vols appeared to wear down late in games and late in the season — a sure sign they were overworked. When reserves know they are going to get in a game they will work harder in practice. When starters know they don't have to pace themselves they will work harder in games. Ultimately, you have players that clearly understand their roles and a team that is more united.

Such allocation of playing time makes it easier to recruit even when you have a lot of returning starters. It also better prepares second-line players to step into starting roles should a first-team player go down with injury or fouls, or if a spot opens up through graduation.

An up tempo game is an easy sale to the type of talented athletes needed to make it work. That, plus Pearl's edict to recruit the Volunteer State with vigor, are positive signs Tennessee's basketball program is on the road to recovery.

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