ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Kevin Punter spilled the beans.
Before the Tennessee men’s basketball team boarded the bus Wednesday the junior guard detailed how UT coach Donnie Tyndall prepared his team for the stifling pressure it will see from No. 15 VCU in tonight’s season opener.
“We’ve been practicing with six players, and that’s been a nightmare,” Punter said. “No one has been open. Coach told us from the jump, it’s going to feel like there are six players on the court.”
Make that at least six.
“Sometimes seven,” Tyndall said. “It’s very realistic as to how they play. They cover so much ground. They’re very athletic. They have great length. They play extremely hard. Playing against their 94 feet of pressure on every possession will certainly be the key to this game.”
VCU’s “Havoc” defense is intimidating to all opponents. The Rams have led the country in steals per game for three straight seasons. Last season they totaled 391 steals, 21 more than next best Louisville. The result? VCU finished sixth in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s rating for defensive efficiency.
“We just have to stay poised, calm down, stay focused,” Punter said. “They’re going to press. They’re going to send double teams at us. But we just have to take our time, step through passes and meet the ball.”
“You have to be aware that there is always someone else coming,” he continued. “There is never one time you should think you are by yourself for a second. Especially in the full court, when you’re trying to break their press, as we are going past one defender, there is always going to be someone else coming.”
VCU’s aggressive approach is especially threatening for UT, which will try to make its way through the season without a true point guard
It’s not that Tyndall didn’t try to change the situation. Injury-prone IUPUI graduate transfer Ian Chiles has not panned out — at least not yet. Senior walk-on Brandon Lopez was in line for some significant minutes until a torn ACL stole his season. Freshman walk-on Braxton Bonds has not been cleared by the NCAA and did not make the trip for this game. Another example: the UT staff pushed hard to land Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus. It didn’t work out, and Octeus is now making plays for Purdue. As a result UT will have to make due with its current cast.
“It’s as big of a challenge as you could possibly have, especially this early in the season, when your team is still trying to find its way,” Tyndall said. “Josh (Richardson), who is playing the point guard position for us, is still trying to find his way and evolve at that position.”
Richardson, named to the All-SEC second team by the league’s coaches for his play on the wing last season, will do his best to adapt. Before running point in UT’s two exhibition games, he hadn’t played the position since his senior year of high school. He gets to iron out the kinks against a defense that would make the most veteran ball handlers uneasy.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Richardson said. “I think I’m capable of taking care of the ball against pressure like that. And I’ve got teammates that are capable of helping me out.”
Tyndall said Wednesday he expects to start the same five he rolled with in the two exhibition games — Richardson, Punter, Robert Hubbs, Derek Reese and Dominic Woodon. He said UT might go small, starting Armani Moore instead of Woodson. Moore would play the four and Reese would shift to the five.
“Right now we kind of have six starters,” Tyndall said. “We are going to be able to play nine or 10 guys in this game.”
There is one plus for UT. One of VCU’s most disruptive defenders and usual starting point guard, Briante Weber, is suspended.
“I remember I was running down the court and it stuck with me. It bothered me. Some guy was like, ‘Hey Richardson, grow a mustache!” And I still don’t have a mustache. It was a tough crowd. We actually lost that game. I didn’t play well, either.” — Richardson reflecting on his first college road game.
“A team that has an outside chance to go to the Final Four.” — Tyndall on VCU
“That ranking stuff doesn’t mean nothing when you’re on the basketball court. After a while when you’re out there that just goes out the window and you’re just playing basketball.” — Punter on VCU’s No. 15 preseason rank.
Numbers to Know:
VCU returns 68.8 percent of its scoring and 68.2 percent of its rebounding from a team that last season won 26 games and made the NCAA tournament.
UT, at the other end of the spectrum, lost 81 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last season’s Sweet 16 team.