Defense is the identity of Tennessee’s basketball program. It doesn’t take long listening to eighth-year head coach Rick Barnes or anyone else involved with the program to figure that out.
Assistant coach Rod Clark says Tennessee players “are going to guard. If they don’t, it is going to be really hard to play here.”
“I think we like to play defense,” sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler said. “That’s how I would put it. … We just like to play defense and happen to be good at it thanks to (Barnes).”
Tennessee entered the 2022-23 season coming off back-to-back seasons finishing in the top five of KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency.
Seven games into the season, the Vols are not only No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency but would be the best defense in KenPom history (2002) if the season ended today.
That might come as little surprise given Tennessee’s past success but the Vols have had to overcome multiple challenges to keep improving defensively.
The first challenge came before last season ended when associate head coach and “defensive coordinator” Mike Schwartz accepted East Carolina’s head coaching position.
Schwartz’ defensive responsibilities didn’t fall solely on one assistant but new associate head coach Justin Gainey took on a larger role than anyone else.
Tennessee returning all but two major contributors from last season’s team made life easier for Gainey this offseason.
“They know what it looks like, they know what it feels like when you’re playing at that level and when you’re not,” Gainey said of the team’s veteran presence this preseason.
Gainey and Tennessee haven’t fully reaped the benefits of that veteran presence and experience. Senior wing Josiah-Jordan James was limited in the preseason while recovering from an offseason knee surgery and has missed four of the Vols’ first seven games.
James is the swing man in Tennessee’s defense. The 6-foot-6 senior’s versatility is invaluable and while he didn’t earn All-SEC Defensive honors last season he certainly deserved to.
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Without James, Tennessee’s defense hasn’t missed a beat. Opponents are averaging 50.3 points in those four games. Three of those games were against quality competition at the Battle 4 Atlantis including a 64-50 victory over then-No. 3 Kansas.
“Our mentality coming into every game, we know if we stop our (man) and they don’t score, the game is still going to be 50-50 and still be even,” Zeigler said following the Kansas win. “We know we can’t control if we make shots or not. But our mentality was pretty much just to stop the man in front of us, then just stay solid on the defensive end, because offense will come if you play solid defense.”
Even with the defensive mentality Tennessee’s program has, maintaining this level was no guarantee with Schwartz gone. Not only maintaining but building upon it with James out is nearly unthinkable. Freshman Julian Phillips and sophomore Jahmai Mashack deserve credit for their versatility.
“I think it’s surprising of some of the new guys catching on so fast,” Clark said. “Like Julian (Phillips) has done a great job kind of upping his intensity on that end. Tyreke Key has done an unbelievable job.”
The biggest difference improvement Tennessee’s defense has made this season from last is its improved rim protection. One man deserves the credit.
“I think the guy that is the reason our defense has reached the level that it has is the growth of Jonas Aidoo,” Clark said. “That’s been the biggest difference to me, Jonas.”
From the moment Aidoo arrived on campus, his rim protecting potential was clear. The sophomore is 6-foot-11 with a longer wingspan and elite athleticism for his size.
His emergence came at the same time as James’ absence. In the last four games, Aidoo has nine blocks and seven steals to go along with an abundance of other defensive “fix it” plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“He’s been incredible,” Clark said. “Basically you take the same defense we had last year, we have the same gap principles, we pull over to the ball, we’re heavy load-up and now you put a guy that basically puts a lid on top of the rim. And that makes the No. 1 defense in the country.”
That makes the No. 1 defense in the country, indeed.