Vols’ Defense Looks Good on Paper, but They Aren’t Satisfied

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    When you look at the statistics, Tennessee’s defense is one of the best in the country.

    According to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, the Vols rank in the top 15 in both offensive efficiency (15th) and defensive efficiency (10th). Opponents are shooting 35 percent against Tennessee this season, which is the fourth-best mark in the country. From the 3-point line, UT is holding opponents to just 28 percent. And in terms of opponents’ true shooting percentage (.455), Tennessee ranks No. 8 in the country.

    Tennessee has also been one of the best teams in basketball at blocking shots. According to Sports-Reference, the Vols are No. 11 in true blocking percentage (16.6) – which is an estimate of the percentage of the opponent’s two-point field goal attempts blocked by players while he is on the floor. At 2.0 blocks per game, Kyle Alexander ranks in the top 10 within in the SEC, as does Grant Williams at 1.6 blocks per game.

    But when you talk to Rick Barnes or Grant Williams, they’ll lead you to believe that Tennessee has a long way to go on defense.

    “We need to do a better job guarding the drive,” Williams said this week. “That’s something coach has been harping on because half the time, we let guys get downhill and we’re making a lot of fix-it plays right now.

    “We’re putting ourselves in bad situations where we need to pick up a foul or to allow an easy layup or basket. So honestly, doing a better job of guarding the drive and executing our coverages.”

    Williams has drawn criticism for his defensive effort from Barnes at times this season. The reigning SEC Player of the Year has had more on his plate through seven games than he did for a lot of last year. Opponents are double-teaming and triple-teaming Williams on nearly every possession, so there has been some thought that the junior doesn’t have the same energy to put forth on the defensive end of the floor.

    But for Williams, he’s not accepting that excuse.

    “Right now, I’m the worst defender on the team in our points per minute, and that shouldn’t be the case,” Williams stated. “You should never have to ask someone to play harder on another end.

    “I feel like I could be one of the best defenders on the team, and right now, I’m not showing that because I’m not putting that effort in on that end. So that’s where my focus should be and will be.”

    Rick Barnes explains, though, that Williams could simply help himself out by learning how to contest shots. If Williams wants to become the player that he wants to be, doing that is critical.

    “When a guy is on the free-throw line or 3-point line, you can make the effort to go run him off the line and get a hand up,” Barnes explained. “You can’t give up free shots. You can’t overhelp where you put yourself in a position where you can’t get back to your own man. You have to stay in front of the basketball.”

    Williams’ and Tennessee’s defense will have to be on point this weekend as it takes on No. 1 Gonzaga (9-0).  The Bulldogs currently sit at No. 1 in the county in field-goal percentage (.542) and No. 2 in scoring at 98.4 points per game. The Zags are also a tremendous passing team, tallying 20.0 assists per game, which ranks No. 4 in the country and one spot behind Tennessee.

    “They’re a really talented team,” Williams said. “They understand what they’re doing. It’s going to be on us to understand on the defensive end is where we need to be locked in.”

    Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has had several talented teams during his 20-year tenure with the Bulldogs, but this year’s squad may be the best team he has put together.

    Rui Hachimura leads the way, averaging 21.9 points per game and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 61 percent from the field. Alongside the future NBA Draft pick stands Brandon Clarke, who is averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Zach Norvell Jr. is an elite shooter who has already made 28 three-pointers and is averaging 18.6 points. Josh Perkins is the fourth double-digit scorer and one of the best point guards in the country. He’s third in the country in assists per game with 8.6.

    “It’s going to be a talented match-up between two teams,” Williams said. “We’re excited for it. We’re competitors, so of course we’re going to be a little bit amped up, but that’s part of it, part of the game.”

    No. 7 Tennessee and No. 1 Gonzaga tip off at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday in Phoenix.

    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also the host of the RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.