If you've been watching Tennessee's football team this fall, you may have forgotten what defense looks like. If so, you should get a refresher course tonight, when Cuonzo Martin's Vol basketball team hosts Victory University in a 7 o'clock exhibition game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Martin's defense projects to be so good that it may allow fewer points tonight than Derek Dooley's defense surrendered in Saturday's 55-48 defeat of Troy. That's because most of Martin's players have spent a full year learning what their head coach expects.
"It's simple," junior wing Jordan McRae said recently. "You play defense or you don't play."
The Vols needed half a season to learn that basic truth in 2011-12 but they'll know it from the jump in 2012-13. That's one reason they should be much better defensively than they were a year ago.
"It will help our beginnings," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said. "Last year it seemed like we always started games down. That should be out the window now."
Martin thinks more energy and focus on defense will be beneficial at the beginning and ending of games.
"I think it's going to help a great deal because you have guys that understand what we're trying to do," the head man said. "I thought we did a good job with our team defense last season, especially once we got into conference play. Where we have to get better is individually as defenders. We can't rely so much on help defense. We've got to do a better job of guarding our own man."
Whereas predecessor Bruce Pearl was an offensive-minded coach, Martin is the polar opposite. His credo is that shots are fickle; they fall some nights and rim out other nights. A team's defense, conversely, can be good every night. Some Vols were slow accepting that premise last season but they all seem to embrace it now. That bodes well.
"I think it will help them," Martin said. "They have a year under their belts, they understand the level they've got to play at, the expectations and how hard you've got to compete."
Martin's fondness for defense doesn't mean he'll start his five best defenders tonight. It simply means that the five guys who start will play defense to the best of their abilities ... or they'll take a seat on the bench.
"Not every guy is going to be a defensive stopper," the coach said, "but every guy has to be able to hold his own. Really, defending is knowing who you're going against but also knowing your strengths as a defender. If you're not as quick, give the guy a little space. It's about being smart on defense. It's not about who's strongest or toughest."
Knowing Martin's emphasis on defense, Tennessee's veteran players conveyed the message to the newcomers from Day 1 of preseason practice. That should accelerate the rookies' development.
"I think it helps," Martin said. "Guys need to know and understand that this is what I demand. We can score a lot of points. There will be nights when we score 80 or 90 points. But when we score 50 we have to defend in order to give ourselves a chance to win. That's the most important thing I try to make the guys understand: Let's defend all the time and not put ourselves in tough situations."
Freshman Derek Reese is sidelined following shoulder surgery and probably will miss the entire 2012-13 season. The other two newcomers — freshman Armani Moore and junior college transfer D'montre Edwards — exhibit the potential to be good defenders in Year 1.
"D'Montre's junior college coach did a good job of stressing defense, so he's familiar with some of the things we try to do," Martin said. "Now it's just a matter of implementing him and getting him to understand the terminology."
Moore, a long-armed 6-foot-5 guard, has the frame and quickness to be a quality defender, as well.
"I think his length really helps," Martin said. "The toughest part for a young guy is just going through it. He's a young guy who scored a lot of points, took a lot of shots and made plays offensively in high school. Now he's got to take pride in defending."
Basically, playing defense is more about pride than anything else.
"If you've been playing this game you've been playing on both ends of the floor all your life," Martin said. "It's just a matter of taking pride in it. That's the thing we try to sell: You have to make sacrifices in order to be successful. Each individual player has to make a sacrifice."
Asked which Vols made the most progress on defense during the offseason, Martin hedged and replied: "I think all of them are playing harder. They're physical."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee is expected to start sophomore Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 270) and senior Kenny Hall (6-9, 232) inside, with either Richardson or Edwards at small forward. McRae (6-5, 175) or senior Skylar McBee (6-3, 195) is likely to start at shooting guard, with junior Trae Golden (6-1, 205) at the point.... Victory is a Christ-centered liberal arts school of 1,095 enrollment located in Memphis. The Eagles have played two regular-season games to date, winning both. They defeated Champion Baptist College 86-82 and dumped Robert Morris University-Springfield 67-53. Since then Victory played an Oct. 30 exhibition game at Auburn, losing 108-57.... Tennessee will be without the services of four players tonight — senior Jeronne Maymon (knee), senior Dwight Miller (knee), Reese (shoulder) and senior Rob Murphy (broken nose).