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Thursday, August 5, 2010
Summer Buzz: Tennessee Volunteers

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Tennessee. Up next? Florida.

(Oh, and sorry for the late start this morning, folks. Yours truly caught a bad batch of something yesterday. Let's not get into detail.)

Remember when Tennessee was supposed to go away?

Tyler Smith was booted from the team. Melvin Goins, Brian Williams and Cameron Tatum were suspended, perhaps indefinitely. The Volunteers had hit that terrible midseason obstacle -- losing your best player -- from which most teams never recover. After New Year's Day, Tennessee was supposed to fade.

Yeah, that didn't happen. Instead, the Vols responded to the Jan. 1 Smith incident with a thrilling home upset against No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10, handing the Jayhawks one of just three losses all season. Even then, though, it was hard to see how this Tennessee team -- without its best scorer and most important interior player -- was going to do much more than merely hang around for the rest of the college basketball season.

Well, UT did more than just hang around. It stayed in the thick of things until March, when, after beating the No. 2-seeded, Evan Turner-equipped Ohio State Buckeyes, it was just a handful of possessions away from taking Michigan State's spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis.

And how did Tennessee do it? Defense.

This isn't much of a mystery, but any discussion of the Volunteers from 2009-10 -- and how the 2010-11 version will live up -- starts and ends with defensive ability. Tennessee allowed 88.5 adjusted points per 100 possessions last season, which gave it the 11th-best defense in the country. By contrast, the Vols' offense was anemic: 108.9 points per 100 possessions wasn't even top-50 in the country. But it was more than enough to break away from opponents who flailed about when Tennessee put the defensive pressure on.

There is reason to believe the Vols won't be able to rely so heavily on their defensive chops in 2010-11. For one, there's Bruce Pearl's statistical history: 2009-10 was the best defensive team of Pearl's Tennessee career by a long shot. With the exception of that loaded 2007-08 team, which was ranked No. 22 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Volunteers have always been far more proficient on the offensive end.

There's also the loss of Tennessee's two best defensive players, J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism. Prince was the steal artist and lockdown perimeter defender, swiping 3.5 percent of his opponents' possessions and creating havoc for guards with his 6-foot-7 size. (The Sweet 16 game was one of the few times all season that Evan Turner looked like he met his match. Naturally, his line was still insane.)

Chism manned the paint. Without Smith, the Volunteers didn't have many bigs to fall back on, so Chism's performance as a defender -- leading his team in block percentage (5.7) while guarding each opponent's best big man and grabbing plenty of rebounds, too (21.5 defensive rebounding percentage) -- was a major reason why they could afford to keep so many combo-guard-forward types on the floor at one time.

Without those two players, the Vols will miss a little bit of offense. They'll miss a lot of defense.

You've already heard the good news, though. Pearl's teams don't need to be the best defensive team in the country. Last year's transformation was more from necessity than desire. The Volunteers have always thrived on offense. Which means the return of Scotty Hopson, a sophomore whose tempo-free offensive numbers (his offensive rating was a mere 96.6 last year, which isn't very good) belie his incredible talent. Hopson has had an impressive summer. He'll need to carry it into the season.

It will also be interesting to see what kind of contribution ESPNU 2010 No. 6 overall prospect Tobias Harris can make. His high school numbers are enticingly gaudy. A quick rundown from today's Buzz: "Here's what Harris managed in his final two seasons as the top prep product in the state of New York: Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a senior after averaging 25 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, leading Half Hollow Hills West (Dix Hills, N.Y.) to the Class AA state championship game. As a junior, he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds, leading Long Island Lutheran to a Class A state title."

I think it's safe to say Harris has offensive talent.

Throw in a couple of other athletic recruits -- Jordan McRae and Trae Golden -- as well as Brian Williams, who impressed in Tennessee's tournament run, and it's not hard to see the Vols reverting back to their high-flying offensive ways in short order.

Of course, it's always hard to predict what recruits will add or detract from a team's performance. Whatever the new batch of Volunteers does, though, it is easy to predict that Pearl will coach them very well. Last season was a testament to Pearl's tenure in Knoxville thus far. It showcased his ability to motivate players in the face of adversity, his willingness to change his tactics, and his unique tournament savvy.

Whether the Vols go back to their offensive ways or find a way to remain one of the country's best defensive teams -- or, hey, maybe both -- you can bet it will be by design.