The key for UT?

Tennessee's basketball team lost three of its first four January games because it couldn't make 3-point baskets on offense and couldn't make stops on defense.

Significant improvement in both areas was clearly visible as the Vols trounced Florida 79-63 last Saturday night. Still, head coach Bruce Pearl isn't doing any handstands just yet. He knows there is much progress remaining to be made between now and March.

He also knows the 3 and the D are still the key.

None of Tennessee's past five opponents managed to shoot 50 percent from the floor. Only one came close – LSU hitting 47.5 percent on Jan. 28. South Carolina shot 41.2 on Jan. 17, Vanderbilt 34.5 on Jan. 20, Memphis 33.9 on Jan. 24 and Florida 42.3 on Jan. 31.

Though pleased with the improved numbers, Pearl says Tennessee's defense still has some glaring deficiencies.

"We are a game-plan defensive club," he said. "Last year you saw it didn't really matter what the opponent did. We were going to extend. We were going to hedge pretty hard. We were going to have unbelievable ball pressure. We were going to make you put the ball on the floor, make you go faster. We put our defense on people. While our defense (this year) is improved, we still can't do that."

Still, the fact the Vols shut down an explosive Florida team was no small feat.

"Against Florida, we were able to switch, which was huge. It bothered Florida," Pearl noted. "They had not seen that. Not many people have got bigs that can move their feet like Brian Williams and Wayne Chism, and have guards tall enough – like Cameron (Tatum) and Scotty (Hopson) – to be able to front the post on switches."

Tennessee's recent surge in 3-point shooting has been just as dramatic as its improvement on defense. After hitting 25.0 percent from beyond the arc against South Carolina, 30.7 percent against Vanderbilt and 20.0 percent against Memphis in Games 16, 17 and 18, the Vols drained 42.1 percent (8 of 19) vs. LSU and 42.9 percent (12 of 28) vs. Florida in their two most recent outings.

Pearl does not seem surprised by the progress. He suggested all along that UT's problem was not bad shooters but good shooters shooting badly.

"I think Bobby (Maze) and Cameron and Scotty and Wayne and Tyler (Smith) are good shooters that haven't shot well," the coach said. "Josh Tabb has worked to become a decent shooter. Renaldo (Woolridge) is a good shooter but he's not playing right now."

Although Tennessee's 3-point shooting has been markedly better the past week, Pearl isn't getting too confident just yet.

"As we see different defenses, will we continue to shoot as well?" he asked. "We saw zone and we scored in transition against Florida.... Will we be able to make those shots against aggressive man-to-man defenses?


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