The 2008-09 Vols ranked 11th among the 12 SEC teams in scoring defense (70.5 points per game), 10th in field-goal defense (44.3 percent) and seventh in 3-point defense (33.7 percent). They showed little grasp of the defensive scheme and little passion for playing it.
Suffice to say, Tennessee has made quite a turnaround in 2009-10. The Vols currently rank third among SEC programs in scoring defense (63.2 points per game), second in field-goal defense (37.8 percent) and second in 3-point defense (29.2 percent). That's one of the key reasons they're 15-2 overall, 3-0 in SEC play and ranked No. 8 nationally.
"I think the defense has been good all year," head coach Bruce Pearl said, adding that due to "a second year of teaching with this team, I think we've got better understanding. I think we've drilled it better. I think the assistant coaches have done a better job of helping me game-plan it, and we're committed to it."
Tennessee's team defense is better because several Vols' individual defense is better. Point guard Bobby Maze is a much better defender than he was as a first-year junior college transfer last season. Tuesday night he helped limit Alabama's Mikhail Torrance to 3 points - 13 below his average - on 1 of 9 shooting in a 63-56 Vol win at Tuscaloosa.
"I thought Bobby did a good job of getting over the top of the ball screen and competing," Pearl said, subsequently adding: "The biggest thing on Torrance was not letting him go left. When he wants to go left off a ball screen, don't let him get to the ball screen. It's a defense we've used this year and it's been effective but obviously it was particularly effective against their leading scorer and a guy we felt makes them go."
Now that Tyler Smith has been dismissed from the team, Wayne Chism has been playing a lot of the power forward position on defense, instead of his usual post position.
"Wayne has been on the perimeter more defensively," Pearl said. "As I've always said, he's an excellent perimeter defender."
With the 6-9, 245-pound Chism moving away from the goal, the task of protecting the basket has fallen to a couple of rangy guys - sophomore Renaldo Woolridge (6-8, 208) and freshman Kenny Hall (6-9, 220).
"Renaldo and Kenny have been inside," Pearl noted. "Kenny's used to being inside but that's a tremendous change for Renaldo, who basically played the 3 (small forward) for us last year."
To his credit, Woolridge has not let his lack of heft and post experience deter him. He's using his quickness and jumping ability to offset his shortcomings.
"He's down there battling, and I'm proud of him," Pearl said. "If he gets stuck behind the post he's going to be challenged against these monsters from Georgia, Vanderbilt, Florida or Kentucky with big, physical front lines. But he's hanging in there. Give him a lot of credit."
Actually, all of Tennessee's players deserve credit for their defensive improvement from last year to this. In this case, the numbers tell the story.