Pressing on

Bruce Pearl's first Tennessee basketball team (2005-06) featured only one starter taller than 6-4 and pressed ferociously. His fourth team (2008-09) features only one starter shorter than 6-7 and presses sporadically.

Since this year's team is blessed with more length but less quickness, Pearl is worried that it may not be as effective pressing full-court as some of his previous squads. It looked pretty effective Friday night, however.

Tennessee's press forced 19 first-half turnovers and fueled a mind-boggling 40-2 start in the exhibition finale vs. Div. II Tusculum. Apparently, the Vols still can apply fullcourt pressure, even with a lineup that features more length than quickness.

"I think so," freshman Renaldo Woolridge said. "Some of the taller guys might not be as quick as (former Vols) JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton, but I think our length makes up for it. I think we'll be able to do what Coach wants us to do. We're hard to pass over, definitely."

Once a 49-12 halftime lead established that Tennessee could dominate Tusculum by pressing, Pearl called off the press and made his team play more of a halfcourt defense. The whole tenor of the game changed thereafter. No longer getting backcourt turnovers and transition baskets, the Vols were outscored 39-33 in the second half.

Pearl wasn't surprised. He figured his youthful team might struggle when it had to play a more structured style of basketball.

"I think the team has to learn to speed tempo without the press," he said. "It exposes your halfcourt game, and that's what I wanted to try to do because there are some teams you just can't press. When it came to the halfcourt game we lost by six (after the break)."

Junior Wayne Chism thought the blame for Tennessee's second-half fade was easily identified.

"It was offensive rebounds," he said. "If they got them offensive rebounds, they'd kick it out or they'd go to the free-throw line off offensive rebounds ... either plus-ones or shooting two shots. Our defense was good but we gave up the rebounds and loose balls."

He has a point. After managing just 3 offensive rebounds in the first half, Tusculum pulled down 9 after intermission.

As Pearl noted, this was "clearly a game of two halves." Tennessee was so dominant in the first half that the game was over by intermission.

"I think the first half shows the great leaps and bounds we've taken," Woolridge said. "It was a great feeling, knowing what we were doing."

Tennessee's second-half fade, he believes, was a credit to Tusculum's determination to make the score more respectable.

"I think their team stepped up in the second half," Woolridge recalled. "They had a lot of fire when they came out at halftime."

Conversely, the commanding lead had reduced Tennessee's fire to some luke-warm embers.

"It's kind of tough for a lot of teams to see that big of a lead and try to keep pushing," Woolridge noted. "I think we still did a good job of maintaining and winning the game."

As happened in the opening exhibition vs. Indianapolis, Tennessee played a good first half and a mediocre second half. Obviously, the Vols will need to play two quality halves in the regular-season opener vs. visiting Chattanooga this Saturday.

"I think we have a ways to go," Woolridge conceded. "But, as far as preparation and having such a new team, I think we're doing well."

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