Power of the press

The surprising Tennessee basketball team has a 19-3 overall record, a 10-1 SEC mark and a No. 8 national ranking. This is due largely to the power of the press – not the media press but the full-court press.

When the scrappy Vols apply full-court defensive pressure, they force turnovers that lead to easy baskets. At times they seem just about invincible. When they don't press, however, the Vols are considerably less imposing.

Coach Bruce Pearl used the press to build a 67-44 lead midway through the second half of Wednesday night's game with Auburn. Rather than run up the score, he called off the press moments later. The Tigers responded by shredding UT's half-court defense.

After scoring just 51 points during the game's first 30 minutes, the Tigers tacked on 38 in the final 10 minutes. In other words, after averaging less than two points per minute for the first 30 minutes, Auburn averaged nearly four points per minute for the last 10 minutes.

Here's another alarming number: By my unofficial count, Auburn sank 12 of its final 15 shots from the floor (80 percent) once Tennessee stopped pressing. Prior to that, the Tigers made just 20 of 42 attempts (47.6 percent).

Although Tennessee won handily, 105-89, Pearl was not a happy camper. When asked afterward what was wrong with his half-court defense, he shook his head and frowned.

"Everything," he said. "We didn't guard the ball. We didn't guard the post. We didn't rebound."

It must be noted that the Vols led by roughly 20 points when their defensive intensity began to wane. Obviously, the players relaxed a bit, knowing the game was well in hand.

"It's human nature to play the score," Pearl conceded, "but we're trying to get better."

On a positive note, Tennessee forced 21 Auburn turnovers. Most of these came during the game's first 30 minutes, however, when the Vols were pressing.

"I took the press off with 10 minutes to go," Pearl noted. "I may have taken it off too soon because we're not as good a team without it."

Though displeased with Tennessee's defensive meltdown, Pearl was thrilled with the performance of the Vol offense. Tennessee shot 56.5 percent from the floor, 55.2 percent from 3-point range and 79.2 percent from the foul line. The 105 points was the second-highest total of the season (behind 106 in the opener with ETSU) and six players scored in double figures. Moreover, the Vols did a much better job attacking Auburn's zone than they did attacking Georgia's zone four days earlier.

"We had 22 assists and nine turnovers," Pearl noted. "We saw a lot of the defenses we saw against Georgia, and we handled them better. I think that's really a positive thing."


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