Coach Bruce Pearl and his Tennessee team are known for their pressure defense, but trouble guarding the 3-point line has been the biggest problem in their two early losses.
Belmont seems well-equipped to make it an issue again.
The No. 16 Volunteers will put their 35-game home winning streak at Thompson-Boling Arena on the line Saturday against the cross-state rival Bruins, who are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation.
Tennessee (7-2) has played a difficult schedule to open Pearl’s fourth season in Knoxville, facing three Top 25 opponents in its past five games.
The Vols lost two of those, and their struggles defending the perimeter played a big role. Tennessee has held opponents to 27.9 percent from the 3-point line in its seven wins, but Gonzaga and Temple shot a combined 47.5 percent from beyond the arc in handing the Vols their two losses.
They fared better defensively Tuesday in Nashville for a showdown with No. 24 Marquette in the SEC/Big East Invitational. Tennessee limited the Golden Eagles to 37.5 percent shooting—32.0 percent from 3-point range—and got a career-high 26 points and 11 rebounds from Wayne Chism in an 80-68 win.
“He’s a very, very talented player,” Pearl said. “Will this be a breakout game for Wayne? I don’t know. But we all know he’s got this ability in him. He’s not shown consistently to do this.”
When Chism, a junior, has scored 13 or more points in his career, the Vols are 20-1.
Chism’s big night came in the second game guard J.P. Prince had missed after suffering an ankle injury in practice on Dec. 12. Prince’s 11.3 points per game are third on the team behind Tyler Smith (17.0) and Chism (11.8), and he’s expected to play Saturday.
After traveling to Nashville to face Marquette, the Vols will be back in Knoxville when they get a visit from a school located in Tennessee’s capital city. Belmont was picked as the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Sun conference after winning the league last season and nearly upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins (4-3) haven’t gotten off to the start they were hoping for, blowing double-digit leads in losses to Austin Peay and Jacksonville and also losing at Big East powerhouse Pittsburgh.
What Belmont does well—better than all but five teams in the country—is shoot from long distance. The Bruins make 43.1 percent of their 3-pointers, a vast improvement over last season, when they attempted the third-most in the country but hit 36.5 percent.
After an 11-day layoff following a victory at North Florida, Alex Renfroe scored 25 points and Andy Wicke added 22—making six 3-pointers—in an 82-69 win over Middle Tennessee on Wednesday.
Wicke, the Bruins’ leading scorer at 14.0 ppg, is shooting 52.2 percent from 3-point range this season.
But coach Rick Byrd, who’s been at Belmont for 23 years and graduated from Tennessee, knows in order to have a chance against the Vols, his team will have to avoid turnovers.
“We’ll have to practice for their pressure. It’s something you can’t really simulate unless I put 9 or 10 guys out there against the offense,” Byrd said. “To me, we have to pass and catch before anything else and go from there.”
Tennessee won the only previous meeting in the series, 77-68 in Knoxville in 2004.