UT tops in stops

After ranking 11th in scoring defense and 10th in field-goal defense among the 12 SEC teams one year ago, Tennessee's basketball team made defending the basket Priority No. 1 this season.

So far, so good.

After allowing opponents to shoot 44.3 percent from the field last season, Tennessee has limited its first two opponents of 2009-10 to 28.7 percent. Austin Peay shot 34.5 percent (19 of 55) in Game 1 and UNC Asheville shot 23.9 percent (16 of 67) in Game 2.

In addition, the first two foes have made just 18.2 percent (6 of 33) from 3-point range. Finally, the Vols are allowing 51.5 points per game, a monumental improvement over last year's norm of 72.5 points per game.

Obviously, shutting down Austin Peay and UNC Asheville is a lot easier than shutting down Florida and Kentucky. Still, Tennessee's defensive numbers for the first two games are most encouraging.

"We want to build on this," head coach Bruce Pearl said earlier this week. "We held our last opponent (Austin Peay) to 34 percent. We held this opponent (Asheville) to 24 percent. It's unrealistic to think we can continue that but we want to try to build on it.

"I like the fact that they see what they're capable of doing if they apply themselves."

Despite exceptional length and athleticism, Tennessee was a lousy pressing team last season. Based on the early returns, the Vols are vastly improved in fullcourt pressure this season.

"We're getting more intelligent in it," Pearl said. "We were unpredictable; we had coverage but we made plays out of it. We rotated and we instinctively did things, then the guys read off of one another. Guys jumped passing lanes, and their (UNC Asheville) offense couldn't anticipate."

It's no secret that Tennessee's offense feeds off its defense. As a result, the improved defensive play is producing improvement on the offensive end. The Vols shot 59.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 from 3 en route to a 124-point explosion vs. UNC Asheville.

"The thing I like about it is, when they're taking their shots they're in rhythm," Pearl said. "The guys that shot the best - Scotty (Hopson) and Cameron (Tatum) and Bobby (Maze) - were in rhythm as far as their shooting was concerned. We didn't have many 'huh 3s.' Most of them were pretty good looks."

After making 15 of 19 shots - 6 of 8 from 3 - in the two preseason exhibitions, Hopson has hit 14 of 19 in the first two regular-season games. He has drained a mind-boggling 10 of 13 attempts from beyond the arc since regular-season play began.

"Scotty's seeing it very, very well," Pearl said. "He's in the flow. He's aggressive off the bounce."

After being timid as a freshman last year, Hopson is becoming more assertive as a sophomore. He clearly is looking to create more scoring opportunities, for himself and his teammates.

Noting that Hopson had five assists and three turnovers vs. UNC Asheville, Pearl added: "I would venture to say that would be his (career) high. He's just being more aggressive. Not only is he shooting well but he's making plays. And most of them were good."

Hopson's progress coincides with improved play at the point, a shaky position for the Vols in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Starter Bobby Maze had 14 points, 7 assists and just 1 turnover vs. UNC Asheville, while backup Melvon Goins added 11 points, 5 assists, 0 turnovers and 5 steals.

"We had really good point-guard play," Pearl noted. "We did get better play from our point guards. I think the guys are playing pretty well in the rotation. We played 11 guys in the regular rotation. "

Pearl said in preseason that he'd use a 10-man rotation. He now has expanded the rotation to include 6-9 sophomore Renaldo Woolridge, who did not see action in Game 1 but played 14 minutes in Game 2.

Tenth-ranked Tennessee (2-0) faces East Carolina (1-2) Friday afternoon in Round 1 of the Paradise Jam tournament at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Tipoff is set for 3:30 EST.

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