Bruce Pearl urges Vols to get defensive

Updated: January 4, 2011, 3:23 AM ET
Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl says only players who are committed to defense will see playing time as the Volunteers prepare for No. 21 Memphis and the start of the Southeastern Conference season.

The Vols (9-4) are in a tailspin, having lost four of their last six games because of increasingly poor defense.

"We made it worse on ourselves by losing confidence in ourselves and each other," Pearl said Monday. "You put it all together and you put yourself in a bit of a spin."

Pearl typically uses 11 players but played 12 in narrow wins over Belmont and Tennessee-Martin, their only two victories since beating then-No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11.

Until their 91-78 loss to College of Charleston on Friday, the coach has preferred to frequently rotate players to outlast opponents with less depth.

Pearl has an idea of which Vols will be in and which ones will be keeping the bench warm against the Tigers (11-2) on Wednesday, but he isn't saying.

"It's no longer about fatigue," he said. "The minutes will be played based on over a period of time who needs to be out there."

The Vols' defensive struggles are partly a function of having a practically new rotation featuring several young players this season. It wasn't as much of a problem during their 7-0 start because coaches were able to work with the players on defensive fundamentals early.

Only two teams shot better than 45 percent during a single half during Tennessee's first seven wins, with Belmont shooting 52 percent in the first half and Pittsburgh hitting 50 percent in the second half. In the six games since, Tennessee's opponents have shot 50 percent or better in seven of 12 halves of play.

With four games squeezed around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, the Vols were only able to get in four practices between a Dec. 21 loss to Southern California and the Dec. 31 loss to College of Charleston. Three of those practices were focused on scouting opponents while inclement weather kept all but four players from attending the fourth.

"That was a factor for our new basketball team. It shouldn't have been, but it was," Pearl said. "With each game the drop-off became greater and greater as far as the slippage of how to defend as a team. It came tumbling and crashing down against Charleston as we got terribly exposed.

"It's fixable," Pearl added. "Unfortunately, it's fixable as we start to get into the teeth and some of the more challenging parts of our schedule."

Pearl has one game to tweak the rotation himself before he begins serving an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators during an ongoing probe into recruiting practices by the Tennessee coaching staff. The Vols' first SEC game is Saturday at Arkansas.

Pearl will be allowed to coach the Vols between contests, but in-game coaching and substitution will be handled by associate head coach Tony Jones.

Tennessee had long and spirited practices focused on fundamentals rather than scouting on Sunday and Monday, which has helped Pearl figure out who deserves to be on the court.

"(There's been) just a lot more energy as a team and us playing better as a team," freshman forward Tobias Harris said. "We know that we've lost a lot of games so far, and we don't want to go down this road in the new year. We're coming together a lot better now."

Memphis, which averages 80.8 points and has outscored opponents by 10.5 per game, will be a good test to see just how much the Vols have fixed in the past few days.

"They're good. They're quick. They get to the rim very well. They have very good one-on-one players. They're hard to guard. They have very good depth," Pearl said. "Some of the things they do very well are things we struggle with, but I think we can fix it."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press