D is the key for UT

March Madness makes for sweaty palms, unsettled stomachs and frayed nerves ... which often makes for unforced turnovers and missed shots.

That's why sixth-seeded Tennessee should "survive and advance" against 11th-seeded San Diego State in Round 1 of the NCAA Midwest Regional tonight at 9:45 Eastern in Providence, R.I. The 2010 Vols don't rely on offense. They're all about defense, which is largely unaffected by sweaty palms, nervous stomachs and frayed nerves.

How good is Tennessee's 2010 defense? Pretty darned good. Consider:

This is the first team of the Bruce Pearl era to hold its opponents below 40 percent shooting (.394).

This is the first team of the Pearl era to limit foes to less than 30 percent shooting from 3-point range (.293).

This team allowed just 64.9 points per game, lowest of the Pearl era.

This team allowed a mere 370 assists, lowest of the Pearl era and lowest by any Vol squad since 1998-99. Moreover, the per-game assist average of 11.2 is the lowest allowed by a UT team since 1996-97.

Tennessee will need all of its defensive abilities to mesh tonight, however, because San Diego State is no pushover. The Aztecs have the same record as UT, 25-8, and have a budding superstar in 6-7, 225-pound freshman Kawhi Leonard. He led the team in points (12.8 per game), rebounds (9.9 per game) and steals (45).

"He's a great, great player," Pearl said, "and a very productive player to be able to play the game so physically - particularly to rebound and score around the basket."

The key to stopping Leonard is keeping him off the offensive boards and encouraging him to fire from the perimeter. He's shooting a chilly 21.6 percent (16 of 74) from 3-point range this season. Pearl says that figure is misleading, however.

"He's got good touch from 3," the Vol coach said. "In time, he's going to be a really good 3-point shooter."

Although the Mountain West Conference is hardly a basketball power league, Pearl dismisses the idea that Leonard compiled his imposing stats against inferior competition.

"He'd be a dominating freshman in any league in the country," the Vol coach said, noting that the Mountain West Conference "got four teams in the Tournament" - same as the SEC.

One of those teams, New Mexico, went 29-4 en route to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Two of the Lobos' losses came at the hands of San Diego State.

"They're an athletic team," Pearl said. "They're 11th in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage. They post it well and drive it well."

Maybe so. But can they shoot it well with sweaty palms, unsettled stomachs and frayed nerves?


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