Defense wins championships — or, that’s how the saying goes. If there’s a modicum of truth to it, then the early season Tennessee Volunteers basketball team appears to be a shoe-in to at least make it to the title game. The Vols (3-0) were bombarded with cancellations to begin the season; a host of interesting games were taken off the board, including a matchup against Gonzaga and Notre Dame. That left the team scrambling to find opponents.
To this point, they’ve beaten Colorado, Cincinnati, and Appalachian State — with the Buffaloes and Bearcats vying for the NCAA tournament — and covered the spread each game. Throughout those three games, it hasn’t been an offensively-minded team that takes the floor and pummels its opposition — it’s been a defensive powerhouse which suffocates the opponent.
According to Team Rankings’ defensive efficiency metric, Tennessee is second in the country by that measurement (0.707). Thanks to that mammoth win over the Mountaineers, Tennessee’s also holding its opponents to only 47 points per game, according to the NCAA website, which is tied for first in the country with Fresno State. Moreover, opponents are shooting just 33 percent from the field against the Vols. Finally, ranked 10th in the nation with a turnover margin ratio of 8.7, Tennessee is finding ways to get the ball out of its opponents’ hands and into their own.
According to GoVols 247’s Wes Rucker, after Tennessee’s win against App State, Mountaineer coach Dustin Kerns said, “We’ve never seen pressure like that. That’s hard to script. They wear on you. They’re relentless. They’re long. They play really hard. They’re physical. They really speed you up in the half-court. Then when you get in the paint, they’re incredible at blocking shots. They’re just really difficult to score on.”
Tennessee’s opponents seem as impressed with their defensive ability as the fans do. It’s hard for a team which has shown the Volunteers’ propensity for strong D to get better as the season goes on, but in addition to seeing whether or not the offense clicks, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not the defense can become even more suffocating.
With Tennessee Tech, Saint Joseph’s, and USC Upstate on the docket before SEC play begins December 30 in Columbia, against a 16th ranked Missouri team which is beginning to make waves, Tennessee has the avenue clear to begin conference play with an unblemished record.
Watch out if this team gets its offense rolling in any way similar to the defense. Or, as Jaden Springer put it, “As soon as we start clicking on offense, it’s over.”