NEW YORK -- Coming into this season even Bruce Pearl didn't know what to expect from his Tennessee team. Pearl might have a better idea of what the Volunteers are capable of after their 78-68 victory against Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-off title game at Madison Square Garden Friday evening.
Tennessee (5-0) took down the Wildcats (5-1) the same way they took care of VCU two days earlier, with suffocating perimeter defense and a solid inside presence. Friday's 72-possession performance was a bit more impressive because it came against a Villanova team known for its stellar perimeter offense and bruising post play.
"I had plenty of doubts how good this team would be, because of how new it was," Pearl said of a team that lost four seniors in the offseason (five including Tyler Smith). "But we worked very hard in the preseason. One of the hardest working teams I've had because there were a lot of opportunities and a lot of competition for positions."
It was clear from the outset points wouldn't come easy. The teams took nearly three minutes to break a 0-0 tie, and Villanova's zone flummoxed Tennessee on several early occasions. Finally the Vols stopped sitting back on their haunches. Freshman Tobias Harris, who might be the team's best offensive option at point guard, hit a three from the top of the key to give Tennessee a 22-14 lead with 7:57 to play before the half. Ninety seconds later, Harris reeled in a defensive rebound with one hand and dribbled the length of the court past four Villanova bystanders. The fifth fouled Harris as he converted a fall-away layup off the glass. Nursing a single-digit lead late in the first half, Tennessee's offense slowed down but its defense never yielded. 'Nova made just 29 percent of its field goals in the first half and went into the break fortunate to be trailing by just five points.
By halftime it was apparent that Pearl's team wasn't going to stay on top with its offense alone, which came in fits and starts against the tough Villanova half-court D. The Vols would need to keep Villanova's stable of all-everything guards in check to hold their lead. Point guard Melvin Goins, wing Scotty Hopson and others did just that. Corey Fisher went 1-for-10, committed six turnovers and found first-half foul trouble. Maalik Wayns went 3-for-11 and committed five turnovers. Corey Stokes wasn't much better at 3-for-9. With its three best players operating ineffectively at best, Villanova wasn't anywhere near the 1.20-plus points per possession juggernaut it appeared to be coming into the contest. Instead the Wildcats mustered 0.94 points per trip, their lowest output since a March 6 loss to West Virginia to close the 2010 regular season. One problem Villanova encountered was the length of Tennessee's wings. Hopson has six inches on Fisher, and the 'Nova point guard just couldn't drive past, shoot over, or even see through Hopson's outstretched arms.
"We can make deflections and get in the passing lanes and disrupt peoples' offense," Hopson said of holding Fisher to his fewest points in a single game since March 2009. "That's what we did tonight. We just tried to smother the guards and make it tough on them on the defensive end and then rebound well."
Problem number two for Villanova, specifically Wayns, was Goins' ferocious defensive performance. The 5-11 boulder of a guard played one of the best 1-for-8 shooting games possible, racking up four steals and putting a padlock on the dribble of whoever brought the ball up the court for the Wildcats. Two nights earlier, the senior held VCU star Joey Rodriguez to five points on 1-for-10 shooting. Wayns, a lightning-quick sophomore enjoying a solid early season run and a 39 percent assist rate, had little room to operate and ended up forcing shots and passes as his team's desperation mounted.
"Goins, I don't know, I think they list him at 180 (pounds)," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "He looked like a defensive back of a football team to me. He's broad-shouldered, he's strong and he gets real low. He was very, very physical." With Villanova's best scorers shut down, Tennessee only had to weather one true rally, which came compliments of the offensive rebounding of Antonio Pena and the brute force of Mouphtaou Yarou. The pair of posts scored four points in the first two minutes of the second half to bring Villanova within one and added six more in the next three minutes to help send the game into a back-and-forth tussle, with the Wildcats in the lead for a good part of the early second half. Villanova could never pull ahead by more than three points, however, and when Hopson turned on his offense the Vols shot back into the lead. The junior forward scored nine of his 18 points (6-for-11, 134 offensive rating) in the final 11:03 and looked capable of getting to the hoop at will with a quick initial burst and an acute feel for defenders' positioning. He didn't score every time he penetrated, recording assists on two straight possessions to stretch the Vols' lead to eight with five minutes to play.
"Coach wants me to attack," said Hopson, who has taken nearly 35 percent of the team's shots during his minutes. "I can't be nonchalant. I need to stay in attack mode all the time. I had a couple opportunities and I wanted to take advantage and be aggressive."
With Goins as the shutdown defender, Hopson and Harris as the primary offensive threats, Brian Williams (12 points, seven rebounds) as the enforcer down low and several nice complementary pieces in wing Cameron Tatum and guard Skylar McBee, Tennessee looks much better than the fourth-place SEC East finisher they were tabbed as this preseason. Aside from beating Villanova straight-up at all three guard positions, the Vols controlled the boards against an imposing Villanova front line of Yarou and Pena. Pearl's men hauled in 39 percent of the available offensive rebounds and posted a block rate of 10 percent.
The Vols have scored 1.14 points per possession this season during a five-game opening stretch that has included three solid mid-majors and the AP's No. 7 squad. This team might not be pretty at all times on offense, but it should fight its way through a tough non-conference slate (Pittsburgh, Oakland, Memphis) without picking up more than two losses. After that, look out, SEC.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.