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Ace Reporter: UT Needs More In-Your-Face Defense

In the aftermath of a disappointing 18-point home loss to Kentucky, Tennessee assistant Jason Shay tried to make light of a tough situation.

“I think if Jodie Meeks doesn’t play,” Shay said, “we’d have won the game 72-36.”

Alas, Meeks did play, and the brilliant junior guard set a Kentucky school and Thompson-Boling arena record with 54 points.

Tennessee couldn’t stop him.

And the Vols haven’t been able to stop several high powered backcourt players this season. An opponent has scored a career-high six times against Tennessee this season – five of them guards. And six different guards have scored at least 26 points.

That underscores the biggest problem for these underachieving Vols – lack of defense.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl says the problem is fixable.

But is it? Tennessee tried six different defenders on Meeks. None had success, although I think Bobby Maze held Meeks without a basket for 45 seconds.

“Maze did a good job (on Meeks),” Shay said. “We told him, `You have no other responsibility than to put your nose on his numbers.”’

That only worked for a short period of time.

If you keep getting burned by perimeter players, that tells me you don’t have the personnel to stop them – or your players aren’t trying. And I don’t think it’s a lack of effort.

How do you fix that? Can you get a fifth year of eligibility for JaJuan Smith?

Maze seemed to play solid defense earlier this season and Josh Tabb is supposed to be a defensive stopper. Neither has played good defense over the past few weeks.

“If we shore up our defense,” Shay said, “we can turn it around.”

In Tennessee’s five losses, each opponent has shot over 50 percent from the field.

“You can’t give up 50 percent shooting this day and age, not with the 3-point line,” said Pat Forde of ESPN.com. “I know they want to play at a certain tempt, but you can’t sacrifice defense along the way.”

It was evident that Kentucky was playing with more energy than the Vols.

“Kentucky has a lot of pride,” Shay said. “I’m sure they’re tired of hearing about Tennessee and Bruce Pearl. They were hungrier than we were.”

You wonder if this Tennessee team isn’t as hungry as it needs to be. You wonder if some of the talented newcomers play with a chip on their shoulder the way Dane Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton did.

I asked Pat Forde if Pearl is better off coaching a less talented team that is motivated or a more talented team that isn’t quite so hungry.

“That’s a good question,” Forde said. “I think he (Pearl) thrives a little bit off the underdog role and gets players who thrive off that. But I think every coach in the history of sport will tell you, `Give me more talent and I’ll take my chances.’

“If you want to play for it all, you want talented players. Maybe you can make them hungry or they’re already hungry on their own. But talent is the bottom line. You’ve got to have players who are really, really good. So I wouldn’t tell him to change his ways in recruiting.”

Perimeter defense isn’t the only concern. Three-point shooting has been horrible. The Vols are making 27 percent from long range over the last 10 games.

Shay said UT is down two made threes per game, or six points per game. Shay said UT’s guards shoot well from 3-point range in practice but it isn’t always carrying over to games.

“We need guys to have confidence making the threes,” Shay said. “When the game is on the line, they’ve gotta step up and make it.”

Shay said Kentucky packed in it and left open the outside shot against certain Vols, in essence, playing zone out a man to man.

One thing that seemed to bother Shay was that when Gonzaga snapped Tennessee’s 37-game home winning streak last week, “one guy tried to step up” – Wayne Chism, who had 19 rebounds.

“Hess was battling as best he could to preserve the win streak,” Shay said.

That’s a compliment to Chism. But what does it say about his teammates?

 




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