"Our whole game plan defensively was to wear Butler out," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Butler has been a key guy. Every time he came off a ball screen he got hedged. He NEVER came off a ball screen where we were flat. We jumped out on him EVERY time."
Vol guard JaJuan Smith, who recorded 3 steals, conceded that the strategy on Butler was pretty simple: "Don't let him get comfortable. Don't let him get no open looks. Just stay on him, pressure him and get the ball out of his hands."
Fellow guard Chris Lofton felt that if Tennessee could stop Butler it would stop the Buckeyes.
"We knew their offense was all about Butler coming off screens and shooting," Lofton said. "We just made it a habit tonight to be out there in pressure and make sure he had no open looks."
Butler, a 6-1 senior point guard, was averaging 15.2 points per game entering Saturday's play. He struggled mightily, however, against a group of Vols that contested every dribble, every pass and every attempt to get an open look. He finished 2 of 10 from the floor and totaled just 8 points.
"That takes a lot of effort for him to not only handle the ball and maintain the ball, but to work cut stuff," Pearl said.
That's especially true when Butler had someone all over him like a cheap suit the entire afternoon. As Pearl noted: "We've got four guys in Jordan (Howell), JaJuan (Smith), Chris (Lofton) and Ramar (Smith) that are able to do that. And J.P. (Prince) is coming."
It's ironic that perimeter defense, a glaring weakness one year ago, now might be Tennessee's greatest strength. The Vols limited Vanderbilt to 3 of 21 from 3-point range Thursday night, then held Ohio State to 2 of 20. That's a combined 5 of 41, a frigid 12.2 percent success rate.
"Our defense has picked up tremendously," Lofton said. "Everybody has bought into the idea that defense wins championships. It wasn't like that last year for us, and you see where it got us (eliminated in the NCAA Sweet 16)."
JaJuan Smith, UT's best perimeter defender, is understandably proud of the improved defensive play that has helped the Vols achieve a 16-1 record this season.
"We can switch a lot and not get beat as easy with them out there," he noted. "With J.P.'s length, he can give the smaller guards a hard time."
Pearl wanted to play 40 minutes of high-pressure defense in 2005-06 and 2006-07 but didn't have enough athleticism or depth on his roster. Now he does.
"If we give you space, you can run your offense and feel comfortable passing and shooting," the coach said. "But if we're up in you and constantly pressing up on you, it's going to be more difficult to run your stuff and get free."
Tennessee's offense was sporadic Saturday, clicking during a 27-9 spurt that turned a 41-46 second-half deficit into a 68-55 lead but stalling during a subsequent 14-4 Buckeye rally that cut the lead to 72-69 with 1:55 remaining.
In the end, the Vol defense saved the day, holding OSU without a point down the stretch. After losing twice to Buckeye comebacks last year, Lofton conceded that a little deja vu "flashed through our heads. I know it did in mine a little bit. But we knew there was a lot (of time) to go in the ball game and we just had to buckle up on D and let our defense win the game for us."
Basically, 3-point shooting was the determining factor in this game as Tennessee scored 24 points (8 of 23) from beyond the arc, Ohio State just six.
JaJuan Smith (3 of 7 from 3) scored 15 points and Lofton (4 of 10 from 3) added 13. Tyler Smith and Ramar Smith chipped in 12 points each.
Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night, visiting Kentucky for a 9 p.m. tipoff.