Defensively challenged

Tennessee's basketball team scores a lot of points ... which is fortunate, because it also allows a lot of points. The Vols rank No. 1 among the 12 SEC teams in scoring offense (89.5 points per game) but dead last in scoring defense (74.6).

The break-neck pace at which Tennessee plays is partly responsible for both numbers but it isn't totally responsible. The Vols have a long way to go before they master the art of protecting the basket. They also rank dead last among SEC teams in field-goal defense (44.8 percent) and 10th in 3-point defense (34.2 percent).

After conceding that his 13-2 team has "exceeded my expectations," head coach Bruce Pearl added that "We've got some real issues we've got to fix on the defensive end. If we cannot do a better job of guarding in our transition defense, then we're going to continue to get exposed."

Tennessee's defense is hampered somewhat by a lack of depth. With Jordan Howell sidelined by a broken finger, the Vols are using fewer players and asking them to play more minutes. That makes maintaining fresh legs and intensity a little more difficult. Or, as Pearl put it: "I think we're taking a few possessions off because we've got everybody playing a little bit more.

"We're down to an eight-man rotation. Without Jordan Howell, we've shortened it up a little more than I'd like to. Losing Jordan has hurt us on the defensive end."

With a smug grin, the coached added: "Can you believe I'm actually saying that?"

A liability on defense last year, Howell has significantly increased his strength, quickness and agility since then. He no longer is the weak link in the Vol defense.

"It's true. Jordan is an improved defensive player," Pearl said. "He gives us some additional quickness."

The coach said Howell's recovery is "ahead of schedule," adding: "He's traditionally a slow healer but he had a clean break and it's healing better than the last finger he broke, so we're hoping we can get him back sometime in the month of January."

Until then, Tennessee's lack of depth is forcing Dane Bradshaw to double as the No. 1 power forward and the No. 2 point guard. Meanwhile, Ryan Childress and Wayne Chism are seeing reserve action at both low post and power forward.

"We're really challenged," Pearl noted. "We've got a lot of guys having to do a lot of different things because we're at eight right now."

Opponents are getting more transition baskets on Tennessee lately than they did in November and early December. Pearl believes he knows why.

"Because we lead the league in steals, sometimes when an opponent secures a rebound we're hanging around too much, trying to strip and rip," he said. "We can't do that."

In addition, the perimeter players sometimes are out of position when a UT shot goes up. Bradshaw, Ramar Smith and Chris Lofton do a lot of penetrating, while JaJuan Smith and Josh Tabb tend to crash the offensive backboards. This occasionally leaves no one back to prevent a run-out basket when the opponent gets a rebound.

Yet another factor hampering UT's defense is the absence of an "eraser," a guy who can neutralize defensive mistakes by blocking shots in close.

"We're extremely challenged defensively," Pearl said, noting that Mississippi State freshman Jarvis Varnado "has more blocks than our team."

Actually, the coach is exaggerating a bit. Varnado has 37 blocks, while the Vols as a team have 53. Still, their total ranks 11th among the 12 SEC teams.

"We don't change a lot of shots," Pearl said. "We've got to do it on the catch because once they get the ball in certain places we're challenged to stop ‘em. That's why our field-goal percentage defense is what it is. We've got to make their catches more difficult. We've got to turn people over more, utilize our quickness."

Bradshaw conceded that defense is "a concern of ours," adding: "We just have to find a way to put 40 minutes of it together.

"Everyone has to be accountable for themselves. I think too many times we get beat (one-on-one) and we rely on help, and it's kind of chaos down there. We have the talent and ability to do it. But we have to buckle down and really defend."

Otherwise, the 2006-07 Vols could suffer a similar fate to the 2005-06 Vols – piling up points and victories in November, December, January and February, then faltering in March.

"It caught up to us in the end last year," Bradshaw recalled. "Everyone knows defense and rebounding win championships. You're not going to score at a 100-point pace in the NCAA Tournament."

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