Teams who are considerably less gifted than the Vols can balance the scales, however, by playing zone. The tactic generally forces a player to beat TWO defenders to get to the basket, thereby neutralizing UT's athleticism by putting a greater premium on patience and precision. This causes problems for the youthful Vols, who are neither patient nor precise.
More and more opponents are using zone defenses to slow down Tennessee's transition offense. The most recent, Belmont, used the tactic with considerable success on Saturday, enabling the Bruins to push Tennessee to the limit before bowing 79-77.
"We struggled against the zone AGAIN," head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "We scored 79 points, which is still a lot of points for a college basketball team, but we did struggle against the zone. It slows us down."
Basically, the 2008-09 Vols are an assemblage of superior one-on-one players who have not yet jelled into a cohesive unit. Pearl admits as much.
"Man-to-man, who can guard Tyler off the bounce? You really can't," he said. "Who can guard Wayne (Chism) one-on-one inside/out? It's very, very difficult. But if you play zone, you have all of that built-in help."
Although zone defense can limit penetration, it can be exploited by players who shoot well from outside. Tennessee had a couple of bona-fide zone-busters the past four years in Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. They are now out of eligibility, however.
"You don't see Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith out there," Pearl noted. "Nobody could play us a lot of zone with those guys."
With Lofton and Smith gone, Tennessee's young wings are being challenged to score from the perimeter. To date, they have not met the challenge on a regular basis. That's why UT is sure to see a lot more zone in the weeks ahead.
"Our shooters have got to be able to step out make some shots," Pearl said, "or we'll see that all year long."