Drop-back bounce-back

Earlier this season Tennessee's half-court defense resembled a piece of Swiss cheese – flat and full of holes. UNC-Wilmington shot 53.1 percent in Game 3, North Carolina 55.6 in Game 6 and Louisiana-Lafayette 50.0 in Game 7.

Fortunately for the Vols, their so-called "drop-back" defense has bounced back since those early struggles. Murray State shot a mere 40.8 percent in Game 8, Memphis a frigid 28.6 in Game 9 and Western Kentucky 46.0 (but just 29.2 from 3-point range) in Game 10.

What happened?

"Our guards are doing a nice job of building a wall and not allowing penetration," head coach Bruce Pearl said.

Tennessee's drop-back defense was absolutely dreadful in 2005-06. Unless the Vols forced a turnover in backcourt, they usually surrendered a basket in the frontcourt. Asked why the defense is so much better in 2006-07, Pearl noted that freshmen Ramar Smith and Josh Tabb are very good defenders and that junior Jordan Howell is "much improved" and "no longer a liability" on defense.

The mere fact Tennessee can substitute fresh bodies – a luxury that was lacking last year – is another reason the half-court "D" is better this year than last.

"We might be better than last year because we have one more guard," Pearl said. "We have a little more depth. We were thin last year. Jordan wasn't as good defensively and Stanley (Asumnu) was not as good on the perimeter as Josh Tabb and some of the others (this year)."

Tennessee's guards will be tested tonight (7 p.m. EST tip-off in Nashville) by Oklahoma State's backcourt tandem of JamesOn Curry and Byron Eaton. They scored 16 points each last year as the Cowboys trounced the Vols 89-73.

Curry is a silky smooth 6-3, 193-pound All-America candidate who is averaging 17.7 points and 5.0 assists per game. Eaton is a linebacker-sized, 5-11, 221-pounder who caused the Vols terrific match-up problems a year ago.

Pearl is hoping Tennessee's guards can do as well containing Curry and Eaton tonight as they did containing Western Kentucky's Courtney Lee on Saturday. Lee scored 17 points but had to work really hard for them, hitting 7 of 13 shots and playing through considerable foul trouble.

"He got a lot of attention," Pearl recalled of Lee. "He was double-teamed, he was trapped. You saw (Dane) Bradshaw, you saw (Ryan) Childress, you saw everybody guarding him.

"We were not going to let him get his (points), and hold the rest down. We were trying to do the best we could stopping him. To limit him to 13 shots was great. He got in foul trouble and turned it over four times. I thought our kids did a terrific job."

Perhaps the Vol guards will do "a terrific job" again tonight. If not - if Curry and Eaton are as productive as they were last time - the outcome probably will be similar to last time, as well.

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