Pearl D-lighted

Six of Tennessee's eight losses last basketball season saw the opponent shoot 50 percent or better from the field. LSU hit 64.6 percent, Oklahoma State 63.0, Kentucky 60.4, South Carolina 54.9, Alabama 53.7 and Wichita State 50.0 (including 60.0 percent from 3-point range).

Though 22-8 overall, the 2005-06 Vols were just 3-6 when the opponent shot at least 50 percent. The victories came versus Auburn (56.1 percent), versus East Tennessee State (53.3 percent) and at South Carolina (51.1).

Obviously, head coach Bruce Pearl made defensive improvement a priority this preseason. And, obviously, he was very pleased that Tennessee limited Middle Tennessee to 34.9-percent shooting in Friday night's season-opening 83-52 win.

The defensive improvement can be traced to several factors:

1.More depth. This keeps fresh players on the floor at all times.

2.More team speed. This enables players to maintain good defensive position.

3.The arrival of 6-4 freshman defensive whiz Josh Tabb. He combines with 6-2 junior JaJuan Smith to give UT two ball-hawking perimeter players.

"When you have Josh Tabb out there and then we've got JaJuan ... we get small but we've got some guys that can defend," Pearl notes. "Middle's going to shoot better than 35 percent (against most opponents)."

Senior forward Dane Bradshaw played for three defensively challenged teams his first three years with the Vols. He thinks this year will be different.

"Last year we were only getting stops when it came to turnovers and steals," he recalls. "Teams were shooting high percentages on us. But this game (vs. Middle Tennessee) we did a great job of getting defensive rebounds and pushing the break. That's going to lead to more opportunities for us."

Bradshaw recognized in preseason that Tennessee had more speed and depth than in years past. Still, he wasn't expecting the defense to be as dominant as it appeared to be in the opener.

"I was a little bit surprised," he says. "We've had some struggles in the halfcourt defense in the past."

One reason the Vols had no such struggles against Middle Tennessee was new assistant coach Steve Forbes. He scouted the opening foe and gave Tennessee's players a detailed account of what to expect.

"You can credit a lot of that (success) to Steve Forbes," Bradshaw says. "He was unbelievable with the scout. We were calling out the screens before they were happening. I was almost telling my player where to go. We were well-prepared and we executed better than we have in a long time."

Obviously, one good defensive performance is no guarantee Tennessee has resolved all of last year's defensive woes. Still, Bradshaw thinks the defensive play will be improved in 2006-07.

"We have the athletes to do it," he says. "It's just going to take dedication and focus."

Because the Vols have more athletes, Bradshaw and the other starters won't be forced to play as many minutes this year. That's why having five reserves capable of contributing quality minutes is a huge advantage.

"This team's a lot deeper, especially at the guard spots," Bradshaw says. "It's tough to do that in two-minute spurts but they're all staying fresh and bringing us something."

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