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No. 7 Vols’ defense preparing for toughest test yet in Crimson Tide

Tennessee’s defense is one of the best in the country, if not the best. It was on full display Wednesday night in the SEC opener against No. 12 Missouri on the road.

The Vols (7-0, 1-0) held the Tigers to just .364 shooting from the field and forced 21 turnovers. Tennessee did not allow Missouri to tally an assist the entire game. The defensive performance led to a 20-point win for the seventh-ranked Volunteers to begin conference play.

Tennessee now turns its attention to Alabama, who is coming off of an 82-64 win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night. The win for the Crimson Tide (6-3, 1-0 SEC) was the most complete performance of the young season for second-year head coach Nate Oats’ squad.

“We have a good opponent tomorrow in Alabama,” Vols assistant coach Kim English told the media on Friday afternoon. “They’re a really good team with some good wins this season. Obviously, Ole Miss a few days ago. They beat a really good Furman team, Providence, had a hard-fought battle against Western Kentucky.

“It’s going to be a great challenge for our guys. Seeing how they respond from executing a game plan at Missouri, to a completely different attack against Alabama.”

The Crimson Tide will be unlike any offense Tennessee’s perimeter defense has faced to this point in the season. Alabama plays the fourth-fastest pace in the country and have attempted 279 three-pointers in nine games this season. Its 31.0 three-point attempts per game leads the SEC.

Though Alabama shoots more three’s than anyone, the Crimson Tide aren’t making them at a high rate. They rank third in the SEC in total threes made (85), but are making just 30.5% of the three’s they attempt, which ranks ninth.

“They stretch the floor, five out,” English said. “It is the college version of what the Houston Rockets are.”

Tennessee has faced opponents this season that have presented problems from the perimeter. The Crimson Tide’s prowess will present the toughest challenge to date for the Vols.

“We’ve faced a different type of tough perimeter opponents all season, but this toughness is going to come in the form of facing guards and forwards because it’s five out,” English explained. “Alex Reese, Jordan Bruner — transfer from Yale — James Rojas, a JUCO transfer. These are 6′ 10 guys that are very good 3-point shooters.

“In the past it’s been Saint Joe’s guys that were really good shooters. The Missouri guards are really good at driving. Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly can shoot with the best of them and drive with the best of them. (John) Petty can shoot with the best of them and can jump like Yves Pons. Putting that together makes it a very tough challenge for our guys, but it’ll be a great opportunity for us to see what we got.”

Alabama boasts four players who average in double figures in Jaden Shackelford (13.4), Quinerly (13.1), Petty Jr. (12.1) and Herbert Jones (12.1). Together, the four combine to account for 50.7 of the Tide’s 77.3 points per game – approximately 66 percent of the total scoring average.

Quinerly and Bruner have impacted Alabama’s team greatly this year, their first playing for the Crimson Tide. Quinerly, a former five-star who had to sit out last season after transferring from Villanova, has been key to replacing first round draft pick Kira Lewis Jr.. Bruner, who transferred from Yale, has added a much-needed dynamic in Alabama’s frontcourt to pair with Jones.

“Bruner’s ability to stretch the floor and play hard — usually when you have stretch bigs they’re kind of pre-madonna’s or they’re soft usually,” English said. “Not at all with Bruner. He’s a really good shooter, he has great size and he’s incredibly tough… He takes charges and he’s on the floor as much as you would expect from a 5′ 11” scrappy guy. He’s got a tremendous I.Q. which you would expect from a transfer from Yale.

“Quinerly’s skill level is tremendous. A former McDonald’s All-American, a five-star prospect — he’s really seemed to find his game at Alabama. I remember watching him struggle as a freshman for stretches in the Big East. His game has opened up. His drive game, his shot, his off the bounce, his playmaking. He may be the most talented guard we’ve faced up to this point.”

While Alabama will be the toughest test to date for Tennessee’s defense, the Vols will also be the Crimson Tides’ toughest test to this point in the season.

UT leads the NCAA in scoring defense, allowing just 52.7 points per game. According to KenPom, the Vols rank second nationally (trailing only Texas Tech) in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing only 85.8 points per 100 possessions. The Vols are forcing 18.1 turnovers per game while converting those turnovers into 20.3 points per game. Tennessee’s turnover margin stands at +7.4 (sixth nationally).

Tennessee will be looking for its third-consecutive win over Alabama on Saturday evening. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

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