2007 Tennessee Volunteers
Anyone who saw Bruce Pearl cheering on the Tennessee Lady Vols against Duke can see the energy he brought to Knoxville when he became head coach last season. In the midst of the student section, there was Pearl blending in with the rest of the manic fans. He wore no shirt. His entire upper body was painted orange and a giant letter “V” covered his chest as he helped five other students spell out “GO VOLS.” Try to envision Roy Williams, Rick Barnes, or Tom Izzo in the same situation. It would never happen. The Volunteer basketball program needed energy and Bruce Pearl delivered it faster than UPS.
Packaged along with Pearl was his patented 1-2-1-1 press. Pearl implemented this at both Southern Indiana, where he won a Division II National Title, and UW-Milwaukee, where he led the Panthers to 86 wins in four seasons and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2005. It is with this style of play that Bruce Pearl sprinted to his 300th win in only 382 games, the second fastest coach to do so in college basketball history.
The 1-2-1-1 press immediately created problems for SEC opponents. In Pearl’s first year at Tennessee, he led a team that finished under .500 the previous season to an SEC East Title and a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament. A second round exit to Wichita State was disappointing, but the Volunteer basketball program was on the map.
Tennessee’s full-court pressure relies heavily on ball denial and trapping. When setting up their press, they place one man on the baseline to blanket the inbounder while every other defender’s responsibility is to deny their man the basketball. Once the ball is inbounded, they immediately trap the ball-handler and attempt to deny him from passing the ball down court. The Vols are extremely active and want the offense to try to throw over the top where it can be picked off.
Deny. Deny. Deny. The Volunteers deny their opposition the basketball every chance they get. Anytime their opponent inbounds the ball, whether on the sideline, under their own basket or the opposite baseline, the Vols will deny the inbounds pass. They have been very successful with this strategy; 17 times opponents have been called for five-second violations, 21 times they have forced opponents to waste a timeout and three times this season they have forced their opponent into more than 10 turnovers on inbounds plays alone. The keys to the success of their ball denial are putting pressure on the inbounder, usually with a big man who makes it difficult to see the floor, and switching on every cutter who comes to the basketball. Once again their goal is to make you try to go over the top.
On offense Tennessee’s first, second and third option is Chris Lofton. The former Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky is leading the SEC in scoring (21.5 PPG) and in three-point field goals made (70). Lofton is constantly on the move, running through screens, trying to get an open shot as most of the Vols sets are constructed to free their sharpshooter. He is not hesitant to spot up and shoot in transition either. The bottom line is that Tennessee needs Lofton to score in order to be successful. Unfortunately they may have to cope without him for a few weeks due to a recent ankle injury. Jujuan Smith, Tennessee’s second leading scorer and a respectable outside shooter in his own right, will be asked to step up in Lofton’s absence.
Every team needs a guy who does all of the little things and for Tennessee that guy is Dane Bradshaw. Bradshaw is the only senior on the team and does whatever it takes to win. He very seldom looks for his own shot. If he penetrates the lane, it is advantageous to play off of him because he is likely trying to spot Lofton or Smith on the wing. Bradshaw leads the team in assists and is second to Lofton in minutes played. He never runs out of gas, can play three or four positions, and is the leader on the court. There is not a coach in America who wouldn’t welcome someone with the energy and selflessness that Bradshaw delivers.
The Volunteers are a very athletic team but lack size underneath. This lack of bulk was glaring when TennesseeOhio State in Columbus. Oden had the best game of his young career against the Vols, scoring 24 points and pulling down 15 rebounds in the Buckeye victory. Despite Oden’s efforts, Ohio State still needed a last second three by Ron Lewis to take the victory. faced Greg Oden and
The Vols’ two most consistent post players, Wayne Chism (6’9”, 245lbs) and Duke Crews (6’7”, 233lbs), are both freshman and neither has the size to intimidate inside. While Bruce Pearl does not need either one to score a lot of points, he does need them to rebound and defend down low when opponents are able to withstand their pressure.
Tennessee appears to be on their way to a return trip to the NCAA Tournament this season as their 14-6 record includes victories over Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas. That said, if the Vols don’t want to find themselves on the bubble come Selection Sunday, they must emerge from a recent funk and put their foot back on the gas pedal. The last 10 games on the schedule feature six opponents in the Top 25, so it is imperative that Lofton returns both quickly and effectively.
If the Vols make the tournament and then go on a run through the bracket, it will be attributed to two factors: the 1-2-1-1 press and Chris Lofton. However, if Tennessee runs into a team with multiple guards who make good decisions and can handle the ball, it could be a quick exit, especially if Lofton does not return from his ankle injury at one hundred percent.
In less than two years, Bruce Pearl has put the Tennessee men’s basketball program in a position where it can consistently go dancing in March. What else would you expect from a guy who has been successful everywhere he has been? He exudes energy and the confidence he has in his style of play wins ballgames by itself.
Let’s just hope that seeing Bruce Pearl bare-chested in the stands doesn’t become a yearly proposition as well.