KNOXVILLE — South Carolina coach Frank Martin helped beat himself Tuesday.
Tennessee ranks second in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and have slotted in the top 50 of that metric three times in the past four seasons, a standard that the Vols constructed by watching the intensity Martin’s teams played with in the past.
“South Carolina and Tennessee mirror each other more than any two teams in the league,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “When I got here, trying to show the example of what it takes to play high-level defense the first couple of years we were here, we would watch South Carolina tape with our players and say, ‘Hey, this is what it takes to win on nights you’re not shooting well.’
“The reason I did that is because I’ve known Frank Martin forever. I knew what it was like playing against him when he was at Kansas State. I know what it’s like playing him now — how hard they’re going to play. To get the standard that we wanted, that was the team we emulated.”
The No. 22 Vols were suffocating yet again in a 66-46 victory over the Gamecocks inside Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee (11-4, 2-2 SEC) limited South Carolina (10-5, 1-2) to 34.7% (17-of-49) shooting while forcing 23 turnovers.
It was the third time this season UT held an opponent under 50 points, the sixth time it forced more than 20 turnovers and the eighth time it limited an opponent to under 40% shooting.
Tennessee also showed signs of life on offense for the first time in a month.
The Vols shot 43.6% (24-of-55) from the floor, marking the first time since their 96-52 win over USC Upstate on Dec. 14 that they made more than 40% of their shots. It is the third time Tennessee has shot better than 40% against a Power 5 opponent.
And yet, it was far from a revival.
Tennessee scored 30 points in the first half — the final three coming on a contested heave from junior guard Josiah-Jordan James at the buzzer — and tallied 21 points over the final 14 minutes, 16 seconds of the second period despite hitting seven of its first 12 shots after the intermission.
“We wouldn’t struggle as much (on offense) if we would simply do what we practice,” Barnes said. “If you saw us yesterday in practice, we played the way we wanted to play. … . I just want the guys whose jobs are to shoot it to shoot the ball. We have not told anybody how to do it. I always said to take good rhythm shots. If they don’t, it turns out how it did tonight.
“… We should really feel confident to shoot the ball because we guard the way we guard. We know we’re going to have opportunities to do it. It goes back to when we’re moving the ball and the ball’s not sticking. That’s when we become an effective offensive team.”
The Vols have been able to get to the free-throw line more, a promising trend after they averaged 13 attempts per game during non-conference play. Tennessee is averaging 22.5 free-throw attempts per game in its four SEC meetings.
However, 25 free-throw attempts did not help the Vols against the Gamecocks as they only made 11. Freshman guard Kennedy Chandler went 3-of-8 from the charity stripe and senior guard Santiago Vescovi went 2-of-5.
“The guys that we’re counting on to make them, they’ve got to make them,” Barnes said. “With the guards, you expect it. They’re not going to make them all, but we’ve got to continue to get there.”
Offensive efficiency will ultimately determine Tennessee’s success, but as it waits for that come together, its defense will continue to keep it in just about every game it plays.
“Being able to rely on our defense night in and night out is something that we definitely pride ourselves in,” James said. “I’ve said it over and over that defense travels, it doesn’t matter how well you shoot the ball, what you’re doing on offense, you can control your defense because defense is basically just effort and want to. So, just seeing those stats and getting easy points off of turnovers from opposing teams is energy boosters for us, and it’s definitely helping on our offense.”