Zone may help Hoop Vols

Because he prefers man-to-man defense, Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl plays zone mostly as a last resort. With only six scholarship players available, this might qualify as a last resort.

Pearl played a little zone Sunday vs. Kansas and could play a little more tonight, when the ninth-ranked Vols (12-2) host Auburn (9-7) at 7 in Thompson-Boling Arena.

"We actually played one possession of it against Charlotte," Pearl noted, "but they shot it so quick that I don't think anybody recognized it was a zone."

Against Bill Self's top-ranked Kansas team last weekend, Tennessee went zone whenever the Jayhawks had the ball following a timeout.

"We called it three or four times coming out of timeouts, when you know Coach Self had a great 'man' play called to get the ball to (6-foot-11 Cole) Aldrich," Pearl recalled. "It was just good enough to be disruptive."

Because Tennessee plays mostly man-to-man in practice, the Vols are not yet comfortable with the zone. They're getting there, though.

"Dr. Tom Davis, my mentor, was a great zone coach," Pearl said. "I'm not a very good zone coach because I haven't run it myself as a head coach. It's his zone, and I learned it from him. The more we play it the better we'll get at it."

There are three advantages to playing zone that could significantly benefit the Vols tonight:

One, it works best against teams that shoot poorly from outside. Auburn ranks 10th among SEC teams in 3-point shooting, hitting just 31.9 percent.

Two, it is less likely to produce fatigue because it requires a defender to cover a smaller area of the floor.

Three, it is less likely to produce foul trouble because it tends to be more passive than man-to-man defense.

With just six scholarship players available for duty, keeping those six fresh and foul-free is critical. That's why the zone may be a more attractive option for Tennessee now than it was earlier this season.

"Yeah, if it's effective," Pearl said. "We've been working on it since Jan. 2. It's in now, and we played it enough (vs. Kansas) that I think the next opponents will be ready for it, but it's something that can be disruptive."

Two Vol starters, post Wayne Chism and wing J.P. Prince, were seriously hampered by foul trouble vs. Kansas - Chism playing just 19 minutes and Prince 14. Pearl is reluctant to preach foul avoidance, however.

"I don't want 'em playing any differently," the coach said. "If you start talking to guys about staying out of foul trouble they stop playing defense. I want them to be able to play with foul trouble.

"If a kid knows that if he gets two fouls he's done for the half, he's not going to get two fouls. That means he won't slide over and take a charge, he won't make a hard foul when a hard foul needs to be made. He'll stop playing, so I don't want him thinking about it."

There's an even more interesting reason Pearl rarely cautions his players about the importance of avoiding foul trouble, however.

"I'm kind of superstitious and I'm old," he said. "It seems like every time I talk to a player about staying out of foul trouble he picks up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game. So I stopped doing it - not because it's not the right thing to do but, superstitiously, it's happened too often.

"That's why I have Coach Tony Jones do it ... so maybe I can break up the karma."

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