BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Last season, the conventional strategy to defend Tennessee’s basketball team was zone. The Vols shot 31 percent from 3-point range, 11th in the Southeastern Conference, and it didn’t take long for opponents to figure out that it was far easier to force Tennessee to shoot from the outside than allow its athletes to operate against a man-to-man or give All-SEC post man Jarnell Stokes any space in the paint.
Early in the season, the results didn’t exactly make for must-see TV. The Vols struggled to score, especially against teams that packed two and even three players around Stokes and before All-SEC guard Jordan McRae was inserted into the starting lineup. After being promoted in early January, McRae proceeded to average 19.2 points in SEC games. At times he singlehandedly made sure the Vols didn’t lapse into scoring droughts.
This season, Stokes and McRae will have help, with the return of versatile forward Jeronne Maymon from a medical redshirt and the addition point guards Antonio Barton and Darius Thompson and five-star wing Robert Hubbs. Opponents will play zone defense at their own risk, and the Vols’ scoring average and shooting percentage will show marked improvement.
There’s no overstating the importance of Barton, the senior transfer from Memphis who’s eligible because of an NCAA rule that allows players who graduate from one school with eligibility remaining to play immediately and another school. Barton, who’s a blur with the ball in his hands, excels in transition. The best strategy to beat a zone defense is to beat it up the floor.
“(Barton has) done a good job of pushing the basketball (in practice),” Martin said at the SEC’s media day on Thursday. “He pushes it really well, probably one of the best I’ve been around in transition. He forces the wings to run. And he’s one of those guys who can make shots. Three point shots off the move and off the dribble.
“With Antonio and Darius, Darius can push, but he’s also a guy that can pass it up as well. Antonio is more a push guy. Both those guys get our wing guys running and ultimately our bigs down the middle.”
Former Tennessee point guard Trae Golden had his strengths, but running a tight transition game wasn’t one of them. So right away, Barton, and Thompson are an improvement because they give the Vols the ability to ward off zones by scoring before their opponents can settle into them.
McRae, who joined Martin in Birmingham on Thursday, quickly bonded with Barton and talks about how his new teammate wants to average seven assists a game.
“But he can also shoot it,” McRae said.
Barton is a career 42-percent 3-point shooter. By way of comparison, former Tennessee All-American Chris Lofton shot 42 percent from 3 in his career. He took a lot more shots than Barton has, but Barton is what coaches call a no-leave guy, and he's also a zone buster.
Suddenly the Vols are crawling with weapons against the zone. McRae’s 3-point shot became a reliable weapon last year, and he didn’t rest on his laurels (.355, 60 of 169). He hoisted hundreds of shots a day during the summer, trying to refine the consistency of his stroke.
Thompson, the son of a college coach, is also a consistent shooter, in part because he can already recognize what a good shot is, but also because he’s got solid mechanics. Hubbs is a capable 3-point shooter, too.
“We’ve got better shooters on the perimeter,” Martin said. “Two or three guys who can consistently knock shots down. That helps. That opens up the interior for those guys to be able to play.”