Tennessee’s defense struggling during late-season slide
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The defense that carried Tennessee to a surprising start is sputtering down the stretch.
Tennessee has allowed each of its last two opponents to shoot at least 57 percent and has dropped five straight games, the Volunteers’ longest losing streak since 2000-01. Tennessee (14-14, 6-10 SEC) heads into Wednesday’s game at LSU (21-8, 10-6) trying to avoid its first six-game skid since 1993-94.
The Vols rank last in the SEC in 3-point percentage defense (.380) and are 13th out of 14 SEC teams in overall field-goal percentage defense (.438).
“I don’t know that our team has lost any intensity,” Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall said. “I think the biggest thing is we’ve lost some detail.”
Tennessee had raced to a fast start largely because the matchup zone defense favored by Tyndall continually flustered opponents. Picked before the season to finish 13th in the SEC, Tennessee started 12-5 overall and 4-1 in conference play. At that point in the season, Tennessee opponents were shooting 40.6 percent overall and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
In the 11 games since, Tennessee has gone 2-9 and has allowed teams to make 49.1 percent of their field-goal attempts. Tennessee’s last eight opponents have shot 50.1 percent overall and 41.7 percent from 3-point range.
Tyndall doesn’t think the problems are necessarily a case of Tennessee making more mistakes in its zone. He says Tennessee actually has played man-to-man defense about 20 to 25 percent of the time lately, which is a little more often than usual. Tyndall said Tennessee’s biggest problem has been an inability to guard the dribble.
“If you can’t guard the dribble up in a zone, you’re probably not going to guard the dribble in man-to-man, and that’s certainly a deficiency in our team,” Tyndall said.
Tyndall noted that he hadn’t worked on guarding the dribble as much recently because his sessions on that topic are generally the most grueling portions of his practice and could wear out a team that already lacks depth.
“They are our hardest drills,” Tyndall said. “We don’t let our guys out of the drill until they get a stop. Sometimes a drill like that is scheduled for 15 minutes, but it goes 24 or 28 or 32 minutes. We don’t let them out until they get the stops but we just haven’t been able to do that the last four or five weeks because all of a sudden if you go two hours and 15 minutes of a grinding practice, are they going to be ready on game night?”
But the Vols’ recent struggles caused Tyndall to return to those types of drills this week.
Vanderbilt erased a 13-point deficit in a 73-65 victory over Tennessee last week by shooting 57.5 percent overall - 84.2 percent in the second half - and making each of its last 13 field-goal attempts. Tennessee followed that up by allowing Florida to shoot 70 percent in the first half and 57.1 percent overall in a 66-49 loss to the Gators. When Tyndall was at Southern Mississippi the last two seasons, his teams never allowed anyone to shoot as high as 57 percent.
Junior guard Kevin Punter believes reviewing those lessons on stopping the dribble helped.
“I think it’s going to make a pretty good difference,” Punter said. “He went back to his old ways, and I think we’ll be pretty fine.”
Tyndall noted that Vanderbilt and Florida had perimeter-oriented teams that have spread the floor and created plenty of open looks for shooters. LSU is more of a frontcourt-oriented team, but the Tigers’ size produces its own matchup problems. LSU shot 53.2 percent last month in a 73-55 victory over Tennessee that began the Vols’ losing streak.
“I don’t care who you are, how strong you are,” Tyndall said. “Losing is not fun, and it can wear on you a little bit.”