Vols putting nation’s most efficient defense to the test

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior guard Santiago Vescovi comes up with a Kansas turnover during the 64-50 win over the Jayhawks in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas on Nov. 25.

The Tennessee Volunteers are the 294th-most accurate team in college basketball.

Given their defense, that hasn't mattered.

Tennessee will play its 10th game of the season Sunday afternoon, when the No. 7 Vols face No. 13 Maryland in the Hall of Fame Invitational at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Of the first nine opponents to face the Vols, only two have scored more than 50 points, establishing Tennessee as the nation's most menacing defense one month into the season.

"Everybody's mindset going into every game is knowing that they have to stop the guy in front of them," Vols sophomore guard Zakai Zeigler said this past week. "If we get scored on just one time, it's not the end of the world, but we're like, 'Hey, we messed up. We can't let that happen.'

"From the first guy down to the end of the bench, everybody understands how we have to have that defensive DNA."

The 5-foot-9 Zeigler already has 24 steals this season to rank seventh nationally, but Tennessee's defensive efforts have been impressive all the way up to 7-1 senior forward Uros Plavsic and every player in between. The Vols rank third nationally in scoring defense (allowing 51.2 points per game), third in steals (11.8), ninth in forced turnovers (19.9) and second in field-goal percentage defense (allowing 32.7%).

In the defensive efficiency metric, Tennessee's 82.6 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks No. 1 nationally.

"I think it's the fact we've got some older guys who've been around and know how important it is — that and rebounding," Vols eighth-year coach Rick Barnes said. "Every game you look back on, you see where you can improve, and we've got to do a better job of contesting shots, but we can do a lot of things based on what each player can do.

"We still have some younger guys who are trying to figure out exactly what it's all about, but overall we've got some guys who have really bought into it."

That includes five-star freshman forward Julian Phillips, whose team-high averages of 12.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game have been accompanied by nine blocked shots and seven steals.

"Our coaches have high standards on the defensive end," the 6-8, 198-pound Phillips said. "They know defense can turn into easy offense."

Tennessee's early season schedule has contained the overmatched likes of Tennessee Tech, Florida Gulf Coast, McNeese, Alcorn State and Eastern Kentucky, with McNeese and Alcorn State managing only 40 points against the Vols. Perhaps Colorado's 78-66 upset of Tennessee in Nashville during the second game of the season will be remembered as a necessary wake-up call, because the Vols smothered No. 3 Kansas 64-50 a couple weeks later for the Battle 4 Atlantis title in the Bahamas.

The Terrapins should provide a solid test to Tennessee's defense in this matchup of 8-1 teams, as will next Saturday's trip to No. 10 Arizona, but Vols fans are salivating at the thought of how their team might perform when it starts shooting better than 41.5% from the floor. Tennessee also has played six consecutive games with either Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness) or Santiago Vescovi (shoulder sprain) on the bench, so there is the potential of even better days ahead.

"To be able to prove that we're one of the top teams in the country no matter who's out there on that floor is a really good feeling," Zeigler said.

It's been a while

Tennessee and Maryland are meeting for just the fifth time, with the teams having split the first four meetings.

The Terrapins knocked the Vols out of the 1980 NCAA tournament with an 86-75 triumph, and their most recent encounter was on Nov. 25, 1984, when Maryland rolled to a 72-49 win in the fifth-place game of the Great Alaskan Shootout. The Terrapins were led in that game by the late Len Bias, who tallied 25 points and 10 rebounds.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.