Defense has been the story of Tennessee basketball this season. The Vols are No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency and have the No. 3 ranked scoring defense on the year.
On Saturday, though, that’ll be put to the test, as they get set to face the Arizona Wildcats on the road. Arizona comes in ranked No. 9 in both polls and with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and offensive efficiency. So which one wins out?
“I think it’s going to be hard, because they really do a great job of putting the ball inside,” Rick Barnes said when previewing Arizona Thursday. There is no doubt when you watch them play, they’re a heavy inside-out team.”
So far this year, Arizona is averaging 92 points a game. They are also scoring 1.169 points per possession and have a 61.6 effective field goal percentage, all of which are No. 1 in the nation.
In terms of inside out play, Arizona’s two leading scorer are 6’11” Azuolas Tubelis and 7’0″ Oumar Ballo. Tubelis averages over 20 points and eight rebounds, and Ballo averages over 18 points and nine rebounds.
However, then they have two sharpshooters complementing them in Kerr Kriisa and Courtney Ramey, who both hit over two three-pointers a game and are shooting over 40 percent from three. Both average 11.6 points per game.
“From the time they get the ball, they’re looking at that basket,” Barnes said. “They’ve got post guys that are running to get it and get it early. If not they get ball-screen actions, and they move you to get to it. They do a great job of getting to the rim, throwing it up and going and getting it.”
On the other side, though, the Vols are giving up just 51.4 points per game. They allow 0.716 points per possession, they force over 19 turnovers a game, or on 26.6 percent of their defensive possessions, both top five numbers.
Key to this one will obviously be interior defense. Jonas Aidoo should be back to help with that, and Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and Julian Phillips also help with the post defense.
Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd said facing the Vols’ defense is like being in a “fist fight.” Barnes said his team has talked about defense being part of its identity.
“Hopefully we can get our offense going the way we’re capable of doing it, but we’ve got a group of guys that have bought into each other and trying to be the best defensive team, best rebounding team we can be,” he said. “If you do that, we truly believe it gives us a chance to be in most games, win most games.”
Of course, the Vols have been elite defensively despite missing not just Aidoo at times but their most versatile defender, Josiah-Jordan James for a while. Santiago Vescovi and Plavsic have been banged up early too.
Plavsic has been fine for a while now, and Barnes said Vescovi should be good to go Saturday. The status of James, however, is still up in the air. Barnes touted his team’s defensive play through all the injuries.
“It says a lot about them, but I think it also says a lot about our coaching staff because those guys, they do a terrific job of everyday coming in focused and understanding,” he said. “We kept talking about it all offseason. We’ve got to be better in all facets, but we knew we had to be better defensively.”