Basketball teams, as you know, take on their own unique personalities as the season progresses. A style that may be one squad’s modus operandi would not fly with another, and vice versa. As the members bond into a single cohesive unit, strengths are combined and refined in such a way to make the sum of the parts, hopefully, greater than the whole. John Wall’s team, for instance, was the rare combination of blazing speed and brute strength. Pure physical prowess. Brandon Knight led last year’s squad with patience and focused execution. Pristine precision. But this year? Well, this year is all about dominating defense. Pounding opponents into the ground, stomping their face (or groin, if you’re Marquis Teague) and whalloping every offensive play they run. If I was an SEC opponent, I’d pick up my ball and go home at halftime. There’s an old saying, you might have heard of it, that goes something like “Defense wins championships.” Well, there’s no better defensive team in the country. Jinx? Hopefully not. Accurate? Definitely.
I may be having more fun watching this year’s team than I have through any year in recent memory. I typically get a kick out of fast-paced offense, high-flying acrobatics flush with alley-oops and threes, but that was probably because I’d never seen a team play defense like this. Let’s just look at some stats here, shall we? We shot 10% from outside. We were one Doron Lamb moneyball away from breaking the streak of consecutive games with a three. That’s not very good. But it didn’t matter. The number of turnovers and steals were exactly the same on both sides, at 11 and 6, respectively. We’re supposed to be better than that, and force more turnovers and takeaways. That didn’t matter either. We got doubled up on the offensive glass, and while we had more rebounds overall, the margin there was negligible, at only 6. You see where I’m going with this? Yep, that didn’t matter either.
What mattered was that Tennessee shot 28.1% overall, and got out-blocked 11-1. That’s stupid good. Take out Swiperboy (which isn’t a fair analysis, but go with me on this one), and UT shot 20.8%. “But look at their freethrow percentage!” the loyal Vol might say. “It was 71.4%!” That’s because (1) MKG can’t get in your face on FTs, and (2) you only shot 7 through the entire game. Seven. Free. Throws. In twenty minutes. Meanwhile the Cats shot 88.9% on 27 free throws. It’s apparent the guys have been staying after practice to shoot. What a payoff.
There’s a lot of season left. I understand that. But if this team plays the rest of the season like it has the last few games, it’s over. I’m knocking on wood again, but I mean it. This team is not scared of anybody, and they shouldn’t be. Unlike the last couple years, this team doesn’t rely on offense to win games. I mean c’mon, we only scored 69 points last night, which is almost ten under our season average. We won by 25. That’s unbelievable. I don’t know if this team has undergone a permanent transformation, or is just playing at a peak right now that will be followed by a (hopefully brief) valley, but the style of play is reminiscent of the’89-90 Detroit Pistons. That team, featuring none other than Dennis “The Worm” Rodman (one of my favorite players) won the championship by pairing a sub-par 104 points per game with a league-leading defense and a bully’s mentality. Similarly, we’re not just beating teams, we’re taking lunch money. And I absolutely love it.