The points might not always come in bunches. There might be stretches of play that aren’t aesthetically pleasing. But the one thing the Tennessee Vols never want questioned is their effort on defense.
Tennessee men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes won’t compromise that philosophy because he knows it will help the Vols stay in contention against any opponent regardless of other factors.
“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes says. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”
As they prepare to begin SEC play Wednesday at Ole Miss (4 p.m. CST, SEC Network), the No. 8 Vols are playing defense as well as any team in the country.
They entered the week ranked second in field goal percentage defense (33.6), fourth in scoring defense (53.5), first in 3-point percentage defense (20.2) and tied for sixth in steals per game (10.9).
Outside of a pair of losses to Pac-12 teams Arizona and Colorado, the defense-first focus has been a formula for early success.
Tennessee has ranked wins against No. 4 Kansas and then-No. 13 Maryland. The Vols beat Butler, USC and the Jayhawks to capture the Battle 4 Atlantis title in the Bahamas last month.
The loss to Colorado in Nashville seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the Vols, who proceeded to roll off eight straight wins before losing to No. 5 Arizona 75-70 in their first true road game last weekend.
Even in the loss to Arizona, Tennessee’s defensive prowess was on display. The Wildcats entered the game leading the nation in scoring (92.0) and field goal percentage (54.7), but the Vols held them nearly 20 points below their scoring mark on 42.6% shooting while forcing 15 turnovers.
“You can always impact the game. You always can be doing your job – the details, creating something,” Barnes says. “Defensively, you should never have an off night. Ever. That’s just mental toughness and paying attention to a scouting report coming in.”
Tennessee’s effort left an impression on Eastern Kentucky head coach A.W. Hamilton after his team’s 84-49 loss to the Vols.
“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Hamilton says. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”
Tennessee’s lineup has been in constant fluctuation in the first few weeks of the season, partly because of injuries.
Senior guard Josiah-Jordan James missed the Arizona game – his sixth of the season at the time – because of knee soreness. James had an offseason knee procedure and received three injections in October.
“If you know Josiah, it’s killing him that he can’t get out there,” Barnes says. “He wants to be 100%, his teammates do. We all feel for him because we know how hard he works at it.”
One intentional tweak to the lineup came after the Colorado setback, when Barnes expressed his disappointment in Zakai Zeigler’s “wild” play and stripped the sophomore guard of his brief starting role.
Zeigler made a big impact off the bench last season for the Vols, and the trend has continued since the move back to being a sixth man.
Although Barnes’ words may have seemed harsh to some, Zeigler was in full agreement with the assessment.
“I wasn’t being myself and I was just in my own head,” Zeigler says. “It was just constructive criticism. It was Coach Barnes telling us what we need to do and what I need to do. It wasn’t anything as far as him being mad at me or anything like that. He told me what I needed to hear and that’s exactly how I took it.”
It’s something Zeigler has come to appreciate from central figures in his life. After all, his mom has been delivering tough love since he first started playing basketball.
“I would have bad games when I was younger, or not even bad games – I would have a great game and she somehow, some way found something I didn’t do that game,” Zeigler says. “I used to hate it, but it helped me a lot and Coach Barnes helped me a lot with that too.”
There will be many more challenges to come as the Vols prepare for the SEC gauntlet. They are hoping to find more offensive consistency and see their younger players mature from game experience.
Through it all, they will rely on defense as a calling card.
“We have a chance to be a really special team if we’ll keep learning and get everybody to play their role, do what they need to do and just keep getting better because it’s a long way,” Barnes says. “We’re just getting started.”