KNOXVILLE – Coming off consecutive losses where they gave up a total of 177 points to Memphis and Ole Miss, it’s not surprising to hear what practice was like for the Vols over the last two days under coach Cuonzo Martin.
“He definitely took it back to the basics – closeout drills and box-out drills,” sophomore swingman Josh Richardson said just before the Vols loaded the bus for their trip to Alabama (8-6, 0-1). “We don’t really like it, but we know we have to have it, so we bring intensity on every drill.
“We’ve just been getting beat. We weren’t playing fundamental defense like we always do. We always hang our hats on defense, and we got too caught up trying to play fast or trying to do other stuff that’s not our bread and butter.”
Fixing a leaky defense has been the top priority for the Vols (8-5, 0-1 SEC). They hadn’t allowed an opponent to score over 70 points in any contest this season before the back-to-back outbursts by the Tigers (85 points) and the Rebels (92 points).
And though Alabama (65.7 points per game) won’t be the biggest offensive threat the Vols face this season, a trio of guards – Trevor Releford (16.4 ppg), Trevor Lacey (12.3 ppg) and Rodney Cooper (12.2 ppg) – will provide a huge challenge for a UT defense that has struggled to stop penetration and has given up a fair share of open looks the last two games.
“They’re a good team,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They go off the bounce, but the one thing about containing off the dribble is just getting in front of the guy and guarding him. It’s real simple.”
Added Richardson: “They’re very talented. Releford – he’s been playing real well this year. He can put it in the hole. Trevor Lacey is a great shooter, so we just have to play our assignments out. [Lacey is] a big guy. Whoever’s guarding him just has to body him up because we know we can’t let him get any open shots off.”
While defense has been the chief concern recently, going back on the road also brings up another set of bad memories. The Vols are 3-10 on the road under Martin and 0-2 this season. They averaged just 40.5 points in back-to-back losses at Georgetown and at Virginia in late November.
Tennessee shot a combined 30.6 percent in those two contests as they struggled to find open looks. With a shaky defense showing up the last two games, it will hope the road offensive woes don’t show back up.
“I feel like it’s been coming more fluent,” Richardson said. “We haven’t had to run exact plays to get buckets. We’ve got guys going off the dribble and distributing, so I think we’ve gotten a lot better on offense.”
The 0-1 start in conference play is hardly reason for alarm with 17 conference games remaining, but Martin sees Saturday’s game against the Tide as an opportunity to amend for a rare conference loss at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The 92-74 loss to the Rebels on Wednesday was just the second time the Vols have dropped an SEC game at home under Martin.
“One game at a time,” Martin said. “It’s a long season – you’re talking about 18 games in conference season. First thing you want to do is protect your home court. We lost one at home, now we have to find ways to go get that one back.”
Makanjuola to start?: Forward Kenny Hall is coming off perhaps his worst game as a Vols when he fouled out with zero points and zero rebounds against Ole Miss on Wednesday.
Sophomore Yemi Makanjuola scored seven points and grabbed seven rebounds in extended minutes as he filled in for Hall. Hall, a senior, is expected to remain in the starting lineup, but Martin hinted that a change is possible at some point.
“We’ve talked about Yemi getting in the starting lineup at some point.” He said. “I think, when it’s all said and done, he’ll be at that point whether it’s this year or next year because he’s really improved his game and he’s one of our better defensive minds.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga