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Tennessee basketball: Rick Barnes has Vols committed to aggressive defense

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It may be old-school, and there’s still a debate as to whether or not this philosophy can win a national championship. However, this Tennessee basketball team is fully committed to aggressive defense above all else, and it’s clearly Rick Barnes’ focus.

After using that to win the Battle 4 Atlantis Championship, including beating the Kansas Jayhawks, the Vols are using it in their lesser games too. They ran into a team Wednesday night in the McNeese State Cowboys that plays lots of zone.

Because of that, Tennessee basketball had a hard time finding its rhythm offensively, scoring only 11 points in the first 10 minutes. Thanks to the Vols’ defense, McNeese State only had four, and UT ended up winning 76-40.

“We didn’t let the fact that we weren’t very good on offense in the first half affect our defense,” Barnes said in his postgame press conference. “I thought our effort defensively was good throughout, for the most part. Gave up offensive rebounds, but some of that had to do with some tough shots that were thrown up and they had come off differently.”

Once again, the Vols were able to do this without Josiah-Jordan James, their best defender. By playing aggressive, the Vols forced 24 turnovers and had 10 steals. They also held McNeese State to 16-of-56 from the field and 2-of-17 from three.

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Julian Phillips, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler all had two steals. Uros Plavsic, Tyreke Key, B.J. Edwards and Jahmai Mashack all came away with a steal as well.

“The one thing we talked about, we wanted to be aggressive, we wanted to run, use tempo,” Barnes said. “We wanted to play quicker.”

While tempo may have been the story, it was the interior defense and the inside game in general that really stood out. The Vols came away with eight blocks, and five players had at least five rebounds.

The star down low was Jonas Aidoo. Coming off the bench, Aidoo had an incredible five blocks to go along with six rebounds. He scored seven points in the game. Barnes said he’s getting better but could translate what he does defensively to his offensive game down low.

“I told him, when you’re out there with four guards, we don’t need a fifth jump-shooter, we need someone that is going to do something close to the rim,” he said. “He’s a factor on defense close to the rim, and he should be a factor on offense close to the rim, but he’s got to get off his feet quicker with the ball and play quicker from the shoulders to over his head.”

Aidoo wasn’t the only one, dominating defensively. In addition to his two steals, Phillips came away with two of those blocks, and he was one of the players with five rebounds.

Add in Phillips’ 12 points and four assists, and he did it all. Part of that was being more aggressive and driving to the basket, but while his offense came and went, his defense was always there.

“He knows that he has set the bar high for himself,” Barnes said of Phillips. “We certainly set a high bar for him. He’s learning probably more than anything how to deal with cardio toughness.”

Including Phillips, four players scored double figures, so it’s not like the offense was stagnant the whole game. After the first 10 minutes, it went off, as they scored 19 points in the final 10 minutes of the first half and 46 points in the second half.

Vescovi scored 16 points, hitting four three-pointers, Olivier Nkamhoua had 11 points, and Key finished with 10. Now, there were some issues, including shooting 55.9 percent from the free throw line. That’s why the defense was the story.

“Some teams I’ve had just can’t make shots and they struggle, but you can always impact the game,” he said. “You always can by doing your job, the details, creating something. Defensively, you should never have an off night defensively. Ever.”

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