There's plenty of truth in the rise of Antonio Barton and Tennessee's bench in producing the five game winning streak that put the Vols in the NCAA Tournament and the near miss against Florida in the SEC Tournament. But if you ask Cuonzo Martin, the biggest difference between the Vols of today and the Vols of November-February is defense.
It's a callback to Martin's first season in Knoxville and what we all thought would be his calling card going forward: the Vols finished the 2011-12 season ranked 30th nationally in Ken Pomeroy's defensive ratings despite an 18-14 overall record. It took those Vols two months to trade Bruce Pearl's ways for Cuonzo Martin's, but when they bought in Tennessee finished second in the SEC and was competitive with everyone overnight.
But last year Tennessee lost a good bit of that defensive intensity, finishing 122nd in KenPom's defensive ratings despite a slightly better regular season overall. Maybe it was the loss of Jeronne Maymon, but UT's defense clearly suffered no matter the cause.
This year opponents are shooting 40.8% against the Vols, and Tennessee is 16th in Pomeroy's defensive ratings, even better than Cuonzo's first team. But that number is a very recent development; in UT's first eleven games the Vols held their opponents to 40.8% or worse from the field just twice: once against The Citadel, and once against Xavier in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Why did the Vols dominate 1 seed Virginia by 35 points? Because the Vols held them to 32.7% from the floor, the second lowest percentage the Cavs shot all year. Later in Knoxville the Vols would hold Florida to the lowest percentage they've shot all year, 36.2%.
But the defense was inconsistent. Tennessee was lights out defensively against Virginia and LSU, but allowed Kentucky, Arkansas, and Florida to shoot better than 45% in a three game swing soon after. Three of Tennessee's most frustrating losses - at Vanderbilt, at Missouri, at Texas A&M - all featured terrible defensive efforts with Vandy and Missouri both shooting well clear of 50%.
The Vols would have their moments throughout the season, but never anything consistent. But that all changed in the last three weeks. Cuonzo Martin is fond of saying, "We didn't make shots," when Tennessee loses, which is certainly infuriating at times when the fanbase wants more answers. But Cuonzo's big thing has always been playing defense at such an intense level that the Vols can survive not making shots and still compete. If his first team was built on that identity by the end of the year, it took this third team having its back pressed firmly against the wall before it too bought in.
But since the Vanderbilt game, Tennessee has flipped the switch defensively:
- Vanderbilt: 22.4% (Worst FG% of the year; second worst 30.5%)
- at Auburn: 37.7%
- Missouri: 31.9% (Worst FG% of the year)
- South Carolina: 27.1% (Second worst FG% of the year)