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Barnes Looking for Defensive Consistency vs. West Virginia

(Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

No. 1 Tennessee prevented history from repeating itself on Wednesday night in Nashville.

In 2008, the Vols moved to No. 1 in the AP Poll following a historic road win over top-ranked Memphis. Bruce Pearl’s squad didn’t sit atop the standings for too long, though. Tennessee traveled to Vanderbilt 48 hours later and proceeded to lose to the 18th-ranked Commodores.

Grant Williams prevented the same storyline from manifesting this go-round. The National Player of the Year candidate scored a career-high 43 points and was a perfect 23-of-23 from the free throw line. Not only did Williams’ efforts at the free throw line break a Tennessee record, but it also marked the most makes without a miss in a Division 1 game since Oklahoma State’s Arien Clark went 24-for-24 in 1959.

Vanderbilt led Tennessee 76-70 with 1:32 remaining in the game, but a hook-and-hold foul on Clevon Brown sent Williams to the free throw line and also gave Tennessee possession. Williams knocked down both of his free throws and got an easy bucket on the free possession to cut the Commodores lead to 76-74. An Admiral Schofield bucket in the paint with 38 seconds remaining tied the game at 76-all and sent it into overtime.

In the overtime period, Williams scored 10 out of Tennessee’s 12 points as the Vols won their 13th game in a row, 88-83.

Rick Barnes met with the media on Friday afternoon to recap Tennessee’s defensive effort, talk about the SEC/Big 12 challenge and preview Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers. Here’s what he had to say.

Putting a bow on Vanderbilt

Following Schofield’s bucket to send the game to overtime with 38 seconds to go, Tennessee had a chance at one final shot with 3.3 seconds remaining. Though it didn’t work out in the Vols’ favor, the plan was simple – get Williams the ball.

“Get (Grant Williams) the ball in the middle of the lane,” Barnes said when asked what the plan was on the final possession of regulation. “He didn’t get there.

“Instead of screening underneath the basket, he just ran straight up and caught the ball too far out. Again, I think that had a little bit of fatigue factor. If he would have got it closer in the lane – because they had matched up with our guards spread out and the guy that could have helped would have been Admiral’s guy. If he came down, Admiral would have had room to step in. But because he (Williams) didn’t catch it where he was supposed to, he really couldn’t make a play.”

Williams played 38 of the 45 minutes against the Commodores, putting the team on his back. According to Barnes, Williams couldn’t have poured in his 43 points had he not increased his conditioning level.

“You have to give it to him because he’s getting not only the physical part, but he’s getting the eye from everybody,” Barnes said. “It’s not just him one-on-one most of the time. It’s normally two guys or three other guys trying to get as close as they can to take away space.

“His conditioning from where he started is really phenomenal.”

Progress on the defensive end

This season, Tennessee has shot better than 50 percent in 10 of the last 13 games. The offense has been clicking on all cylinders, and it seems that in nearly every important offensive stat, the Vols are at or near the top. They’re shooting the ball well, they have the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in America at 1.72, and they rank second in the nation in assists per game (19.8).

But in recent games, the defense has been lacking. According to KenPom, despite having the second-most efficient offense in the country, Tennessee ranks No. 31 in defensive efficiency. In two of the last three games, opponents have surpassed the 80-point mark. In the one game that the opponent didn’t score at least 80 points, Alabama’s John Petty scored 30 points himself.

Barnes says he’s seen some progress on defense, though.

“At times, its there. But consistently, it’s not,” Barnes stated. “That will be a big emphasis of what we continue to work on.”

Vanderbilt shot 50 percent from the field against the Vols, including 10-of-21 from the 3-point line. The Commodores scored 34 points in the paint and assisted on 17 baskets.

“We put them in some long clock plays, where I think in the last three or four minutes, they scored baskets with the clock under three (seconds),” Barnes said of the Vandy game. “Where it was either one guy where we didn’t get a rotation or split the ball-screen.

“That’s how hard it is to be a great defensive team. Finish that possession.”

Part of Tennessee’s problem on the defensive end has been over-helping on ball screens or getting lost on defensive screens. The Vols wanted to switch, but they simply didn’t execute.

“We got too spread out,” Barnes explained. “We still aren’t getting to our spots defensively when the ball is away from us. That opened up the court way too much.

“Again, that’s where we can continue to get better to where we’re back to getting into gaps better as opposed to getting so locked into our man that we are giving teams too much room to play with.”

Here come the Mountaineers

Saturday seems to be the perfect time to get back on the right track defensively.

This year’s West Virginia team isn’t the Bob Huggins-led Mountaineers team we’ve become accustomed to over the years. West Virginia is 9-10 to start the season and just 1-6 in conference play. Part of the reason for the Mountaineers’ struggles this season are because of the loss of Sagaba Konate to injury in December.

Without Konate, West Virginia is shooting 42.1 percent from the field – tied for 287th nationally. In 19 games, the Mountaineers are scoring 74.5 points per game and making just 31 percent of their 3-point attempts.

“He lost some very good players from a year ago,” Barnes said of Huggins’ squad. “I know with his experience he’s going to keep getting better.”

Where the Mountaineers make their bread is on the defensive end of the floor, but this season – after losing the likes of Jevon Carter – the defense has taken a step back. In league play, West Virginia is giving up 73.9 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot 43.2 percent from the floor – both ranking 10th-worst in the Big 12.

“Everyone got familiar with the press, and they still do that,” Barnes said of West Virginia. “They’ll use a 1-3-1. They’re going to be aggressive, they’ll challenge passes. They’re going to challenge outlets, they’re going to challenge the rebounder to make the outlet. They’re going to make you handle the basketball.

“Offensively, I think they’re very similar to what we want to do. They definitely want to play inside-out. Terrific offensive rebounding team.”

In the absence of Konate, junior guard James Bolden and senior forward Esa Ahmad have stepped up in his absence. Bolden is leading the team in scoring (12.8 ppg), assists (2.6 apg) and steals (1.1 spg). Ahmad is the team’s leading rebounder (5.6 rbg) and is the second leading-scorer, averaging 12.3 points per game.

“We expect them (West Virginia) to play at the highest level and as hard as they can possibly play,” Barnes said. “His teams (Huggins) have always been hard-nosed, tough basketball teams. This team isn’t going to be any different.”

Saturday’s game between Tennessee and West Virginia is scheduled to tip off at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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