KNOXVILLE — Hindsight is often crystal clear, but perhaps the Tennessee men’s basketball team shouldn’t have been so surprised to see Austin Peay switch to a zone defense early in Friday’s season opener.
The Volunteers pulled away in the second half and cruised to an 83-54 victory, but the Governors made things interesting midway through the first half.
UT ran out to a 27-10 lead in the first 13 minutes, but Austin Peay switched schemes and made a 13-2 spurt. The Governors slowed the Vols and clawed within 31-25 at halftime.
“The zone did get us standing around a little bit, but that’s why people play zone,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said Monday. “It’s not as easy to fastbreak against, and it’s very difficult to run secondary offense against.
“You can fastbreak against it and see what you can do, or then get into a set ... and that takes more time.”
UT spent hours in the offseason trying to improve last season’s 229-for-728 (31.5 percent) shooting from 3-point range, and coaches and players are confident that will happen. The Vols finished a respectable 10-for-23 from long range Friday, but their percentage sharply declined against the zone, and seldom-used walk-on Michael Hubert’s 2-for-2 performance in the closing moments gave the numbers a boost.
Freshman guard Skylar McBee from Grainger County, who turned down several mid-major scholarship offers to walk on at UT, shot well all preseason but went 0-for-4 against Austin Peay.
Aside from Hubert and starting sophomore guard Scotty Hopson’s 4-for-6 success, the Vols were 4-for-15 from behind the arc. And they wasted too much time adjusting to their half-court sets when the Governors halted their primary fastbreak.
“We like a fast-paced game, and we really didn’t expect to see much zone coming from (Austin Peay), so that kind of slowed us down a little bit,” McBee said. “But we played solid defense and played pretty well offensively, and luckily it didn’t affect us too much. In this week and the games to come, we’re going to work on that more, and Coach Pearl is going to put in stuff that’s going to over-prepare us for playing those zones.
“I wasn’t here, but we didn’t have a very good 3-point shooting percentage last year, so I think teams are going to play to that. They’re going to at least try that out at the first of the game and see if we can make shots.”
Pearl will reach his 100th UT victory in barely more than four seasons if the Vols prevail tonight over UNC-Asheville (0-1), but that wasn’t the biggest number on his mind Monday.
“If we win, it’s No. 2 for this season,” Pearl said. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”
“I care about history, though, and I want very badly for this to be known as a very special time in Tennessee basketball history. I really do. So from that standpoint, if it adds to history, I’m all for it. But I’m more interested in how we play against Asheville and how we continue to grow and improve.”
Pearl added that he felt “fortunate” to get the UT job five years ago, following success at smaller programs.
“I still feel like I’m new,” Pearl said. “I still feel like I’m a rookie. I still feel like I just got here. I still feel like we’re trying to get some credibility for our men’s basketball program and get it to the level that the rest of our athletic department enjoys. That’s really how I feel.
“I don’t ask for directions anymore. I know where I’m going now, and I love it here. But I still very much feel like a new kid on the block. Can you say that when you’re almost 50? But honestly, that’s how I feel.”
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.