KNOXVILLE — At first glance, it would be easy to glean that the Tennessee men's basketball team's defensive performance this season is on par with what the Volunteers accomplished last season.
Don't tell anyone in the program that.
For the seventh-ranked Vols (6-1) to reach their ultimate goal of competing for a national championship, they believe they must first address some plaguing problems on the defensive end of the court.
The trouble is not obvious, with some of Tennessee's defensive statistics so far this season comparable to — slightly better than, in fact — those from the end of last season, including average points allowed per game (63.6 this season, 65.7 last season) and opponents' shooting percentage (.355 this season, .409 last season).
But the 2018-19 stats came at the end of a season that included winning a share of the Southeastern Conference's regular-season championship, reaching the SEC tournament title game and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
With this season a little more than a month old, the Vols have faced four opponents outside of the Power Five conferences: Division II program Lenoir-Rhyne, Sun Belt member Louisiana, Eastern Kentucky of the Ohio Valley Conference and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi of the Southland. They also have beaten Atlantic Coast Conference members Georgia Tech, which is just 4-3, and Louisville, which was 5-2 heading into Wednesday's home game against Central Arkansas.
The Vols beat Louisville 92-81 in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, before dropping the championship game 87-81 in overtime to Big 12 member and perennial national power Kansas. The second-ranked Jayhawks are still undefeated through six games.
Against the Vols, Louisville hit 40 percent of its 3-point attempts, making 11, while Kansas shot 50 percent overall from the floor and 58 percent from inside the 3-point line.
The Vols' biggest concern is their on-the-ball defense, which has had numerous breakdowns leading to open 3-point shots.
"We've got to do a better job of guarding the drive," junior forward Grant Williams said. "That's something that Coach has been harping on. Half the time we're letting guys get downhill on us, and we're having to make a lot of 'fix-it' plays right now.
"We're putting ourselves in bad situations where we could pick up a foul or allow an easy layup. We've got to do a better job of guarding the drive and then executing our coverages."
After Sunday's win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tennessee senior guard Admiral Schofield said the Vols are far more talented offensively at the time and will have to learn how to divide the energy expended between the offensive and defensive ends.
Junior guard Lamonte Turner, who shared the SEC's sixth man of the year award last season but had shoulder surgery in the offseason, has averaged 23.7 minutes while appearing in just three games this season — against Louisville, Kansas and Eastern Kentucky. Although one of the best on-the-ball defenders on the team, he is still adjusting, and that has affected the Vols' quality depth at his position.
His absence led to coach Rick Barnes putting more inexperienced players on the perimeter, including sophomores Jalen Johnson and Yves Pons. The latter has started consecutive games, but after a solid outing against Eastern Kentucky, he struggled offensively against the Islanders and played only 16 minutes.
With a matchup against top-ranked Gonzaga (8-0) coming up Sunday at the Jerry Colangelo Classic in Phoenix, defensive breakdowns won't yield a good result. The Bulldogs lead the country in field-goal percentage at .542 — having made 65 percent of their shots inside the 3-point line and 39 percent beyond it — and they have averaged 98.4 points per game.
With a full week between the 79-51 win against the Islanders and what's expected to be a tough test against the 2017 NCAA tournament runners-up who already have a win against title favorite Duke, the Vols have been trying to use their time to improve.
Against Gonzaga, it will be essential.
"We need this week," Barnes said. "We have a routine that we go through where we're going to spend a lot of time on things we need to work on to get better."