Despite being in the top 10, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl insists his team is a work in progress.
On Saturday, the eighth-ranked Volunteers return to the court after a nine-day break hoping to improve upon their defense as they play at Temple.
An up-tempo team that is averaging 87.1 points, Tennessee (6-1) has struggled at times defensively, giving up 71.3 points per game while allowing opponents to shoot 42.2 percent. But Pearl has been more concerned about his team’s inability to consistently provide the same full-court defense that forced 18.3 turnovers per game last season.
“We’re ranked seventh or eighth (in the SEC) in steals, and that’s very uncharacteristic of any teams I coach,” Pearl said Monday in his weekly news conference. “It tells you we’re not pressing as well, not able to press up on the ball, that guys off the ball are not in position to make plays. Those are factors in full-court and half-court defense. And when you’re not stealing the ball, you’re not creating offense with your defense.
“I don’t see the quickness, I don’t see the anticipation. You need five guys to be able to press and if we can’t press and turn over some of the teams that have been on our schedule, it’s going to be hard to press and turn over some of the teams about to get on our schedule.”
Despite not meeting Pearl’s standards, the Vols have had little trouble scoring. Tyler Smith had 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the first triple-double in school history in the last game, an 87-69 victory over North Carolina-Asheville on Dec. 3 that also was Pearl’s 400th career win.
One of the reasons the offense has flourished has been the play of point guard Bobby Maze. The junior transfer from Oklahoma is averaging only 8.4 points, but has a 4.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that has earned Pearl’s praise.
“Bobby’s playing with freedom, he’s playing aggressively and he has only eight turnovers,” Pearl said. “He has great respect for the ball, and I think it’s a healthy thing to add to this team.”
Freshmen Scotty Hopson and Renaldo Woolridge have combined to contribute 15.5 points per game, but their challenge will come on the defensive end in stopping Temple senior guard Dionte Christmas, who is averaging 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Christmas, though, is coming off a season-low two-point effort in a 65-59 win at Penn State last Saturday.
The Owls (4-3) avoided a third straight loss and are hoping Christmas can snap out of a two-game funk in which he has gone 4-for-19 from the field, including 3-for-14 from 3-point range. Temple coach Fran Dunphy sees a silver lining in the slump, and hopes Christmas realizes the team needs him to be more than a one-dimensional scorer.
“I think he is learning and understanding that it is not the critical mass that we need from him that is making shots all the time,” Dunphy said. “We need for him to play the total game.”
Lavoy Allen, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, contributed 11 points and 10 rebounds last Saturday despite playing with a fractured left thumb. He’ll likely be responsible for defending Smith, who is averaging a team-high 17.4 points and 5.9 rebounds.
The Vols kept Christmas in check in an 80-63 victory to open last season, holding him to 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting, including 1-for-8 from beyond the arc. Tennessee forced 15 first-half turnovers and 23 overall while holding Temple to 39.0 percent shooting.