As The Head Turns

The Tennessee basketball team's defense is turning heads ... but not in a good way.

Speaking at his weekly news conference, head coach Bruce Pearl suggested that his players have been beaten on so many dribble-drives this season that he's had to modify their defensive posture to protect them from neck injuries.

"We started working on head-turn slides," he said, illustrating the point by violently whipping his head from side to side while assuming an arms-out defensive stance, "because guys were driving by them and I didn't want anybody to pull a muscle in their neck."

The wisecrack drew a good laugh but Pearl was only half joking. Tennessee's defense has been a weakness all season – a weakness that could prove decisive when the Vols (12-5) host No. 22 Memphis (15-3) Saturday at 3:30.

Pearl signed first-year guards Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson and Renaldo Woolridge by selling the Vols' full-court press defense and uptempo transition offense. Once the newcomers got on campus, however, Pearl and his staffers realized the 2008-09 Vols were not adept at applying full-court pressure.

"We knew it as coaches but our players didn't," the head man said. "They thought we could still press and extend, press up on the ball."

The players were wrong, however. Opponents quickly learned they could exploit UT's defense, resulting in gaudy shooting percentages. Georgetown shot 53.1 percent in Game 5, Gonzaga 51.9 percent in Game 6, Temple 55.4 percent in Game 8, Kansas 51.5 percent in Game 12, then Gonzaga 52.5 in a Game 13 rematch. The low point came in Game 15, when Jodie Meeks lit up UT for 54 points and Kentucky shot 56.6 percent as a team in a 90-72 romp at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Vols held a players-only meeting the day after the Big Blue blowout to discuss their defensive shortcomings – shortcomings the coaches had been discussing all season long.

"We've got huge defensive weaknesses," Pearl said, "and all we're doing is doing the best we can to cover it up."

The Vols appear to be doing a better job of covering up those weaknesses lately. They limited South Carolina to 41 percent shooting in an 82-79 win last Saturday, then limited Vanderbilt to 34 percent in a 76-63 triumph on Tuesday night.

Pearl concedes that there has been improvement, although he can't pinpoint one overriding reason for the progress.

"Was it that Meeks scored 54? Was it the players-only meeting?" he asked rhetorically. "I think it was a combination."

Although he acknowledges some defensive improvement in the past week, Pearl says his team still has a long, long way to go.

"I've got to be able to build in some help from the backside of our defense," he said. "They (opponents) are still going by us. Vanderbilt still went by us. It was just that help arrived sooner."

Tennessee is playing less full-court press and more halfcourt zone this season in an effort to cover up some of its defensive woes. That goes against Pearl's aggressive nature but the coach feels he has no choice.

"We want to be a defense that makes it difficult for you to run your stuff," he said. "This team can't do that."

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