Disappearing defense

Tennessee limited North Carolina A&T to 41.9 percent field-goal shooting last Wednesday night, which sounds impressive until you realize the Aggies shot just 38.3 percent in their previous 11 games.

The Vols' previous game saw a Southern Cal team that was shooting just 42.8 percent through its first eight games burn them to the tune of 56.1 percent.

When you consider that Tennessee's first nine opponents combined to shoot just 37.8 percent from the field, what has happened the past two games suggests the Vols have forgotten how to play defense. They'd better remember in a hurry, since Memphis (Thursday), Charlotte (Jan. 6) and top-ranked Kansas (Jan. 10) are the next three foes.

No one is more acutely aware of this than head coach Bruce Pearl.

"Obviously, our biggest challenge defensively is keeping guys in front of us and being able to do that, in particular, with ball-screen offense," Pearl said. We'll be working on those things."

Tennessee had better work hard and productively because Memphis plays a ball-screen offense.

"That's basically what Memphis does; they dribble-penetrate and use ball-screen offense to find gaps," Pearl said. "That's our great weakness defensively, so that's one of the things we're going to have to continue to work on."

Tennessee was a poor defensive team last season because Cameron Tatum played on bad knees and the Vols started two first-year players - freshman Scotty Hopson and juco transfer Bobby Maze - who were unfamiliar with the UT defensive scheme.

There is no such excuse this season. This is a veteran Vol team, and Tatum's knees are much healthier than a year ago. The fact Tennessee played good defense in Games 1 through 9 suggests one thing: The Vols didn't give the effort on defense in Games 10 and 11 that they had earlier.

"We were doing it better early in the season - both in terms of guys competing to keep guys in front and doing a better job of offering the hedge help required in ball-screen defense and then the mid-line guys rotating over to make plays and rebound the ball," Pearl said. "All three things need to take place in order to effectively guard the ball-screen. The last few games we've not done that as well."

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