Sitting in a shared apartment, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson waited for the cell phone to buzz. A response was coming, they knew it.
Cuonzo Martin: “Good.”
Above the response, McRae’s text message read, “Just to let you know, our team really likes playing the 2-2-1.”
“Typical Coach Martin response,” McRae joked Monday, remembering the week-old exchange.
McRae sent the text message prior to the South Carolina game on Feb. 10, back when Tennessee basketball needed a shakeup. The Vols had lost two straight to Arkansas and Georgia, and seven of their last 10 games overall. McRae, a junior guard, and Richardson, a sophomore guard, sat discussing what could be different. They talked about practice, where a three-quarter court, 2-2-1 press defense and a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt gave the Vols’ offense fits.
“Why not try it on someone else, instead of beating up on each other,” McRae said.
Martin is a defensive coach. He wants in-your-shorts man-to-man defense. He wants physical play. He wants grit.
Martin’s feelings toward implementing a full-court press and, even worse, a zone defense, conjures memories of Jonathan Swift’s old political metaphor: Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.
Just replace “laws” with “zone,” “small flies” with “bad teams,” and “wasps and hornets” with “talented teams and players.”
Showing some flexibility, though, Martin agreed to mix things up. McRae and Richardson weren’t the only ones lobbying for it.
Three games — actually, three wins — later, Tennessee can be seen changing defenses and swarming all over the floor.
Martin said Monday it wasn’t a matter of swallowing his pride, but instead, “It’s me as a coach realizing what’s best for your particular personnel.”
The Vols pressed and played zone during last summer’s exhibition tour of Italy. They used a 1-3-1 zone as opposed to the current 2-3, but when the season arrived and Martin found himself without injured players Jeronne Maymon, Derek Reese and Dwight Miller, he decided to bag it.
“We didn’t want to make any guys vulnerable,” he said.
But it’s back now and LSU (15-8, 6-6 SEC), Tuesday night's visitors to Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: ESPNU 7 p.m.), will likely see an array of defensive looks from the Vols (14-10, 6-6). The change in style has worked wonders. UT’s last three opponents have averaged 55.0 points per game.
“We can get steals, get dunks, get layups,” McRae said. “That’s the kind of thing that gets the emotions high and easy points.”
While steals are sometimes the by-product, Martin’s press and zone is used more to slow opposing offenses, keep scorers out of transition and take time off the shot clock.
Feeding off 29 made field goals on Saturday, the Vols’ defense blanketed No. 25 Kentucky in a beatdown of historical proportions. The Wildcats could muster only 58 points and left Knoxville chewing on a 30-point defeat.
Now LSU, which averages 64.5 points per game in SEC affairs, is coming to Knoxville.
“As long as we keep scoring the way we are, I think you’re going to see us getting into the press a lot more,” UT guard Skylar McBee foreshadowed.
With six games remaining in a season that once teetered on the brink of oblivion, the Vols have newfound mojo. Just two weeks ago, they were 11-10 overall, 3-6 in the SEC.
“It’s amazing what confidence can do for you,” Martin said. “It’s the same team. We haven’t changed anything, outside of tweaks here and there. It’s the same system.”
Only it isn’t.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn