UK Men's Basketball

Gillispie Vols' biggest fan?

On Monday, Billy Gillispie spoke glowingly of Tennessee, not so coincidentally Kentucky's next opponent.

So never mind that the Vols are dropping fast in the polls (No. 10 a month ago and now No. 24 in The Associated Press media balloting; completely out of USA Today's coaches vote).

Gillispie painted a scary picture of what awaits Kentucky in Knoxville Tuesday night.

"Been good, getting better," he said of Tennessee.

Wing Tyler Smith? "A warrior" whose all-around contributions validate his winning the Southeastern Conference pre-season Player of the Year vote, Gillispie said.

Power forward Wayne Chism? "One of the best interior players in the country," Gillispie said. "He'll go to the NBA and last 10, 15 years and make a ton of money."

Although coaches typically speak well of upcoming opponents, Gillispie stretched that well-worn concept to the breaking point when he saluted Tennessee as a "real good team defensively."

Counting non-conference games, the Vols rank last among SEC teams in points allowed (75.1) and opponents' shooting (43.9 percent). Tennessee is next to last in three-point defense with opponents shooting 35.2 percent from beyond the arc.

During appearances on the SEC coaches' teleconferences, Tennessee's Bruce Pearl has lamented his team's lack of defense. He said the Vols are too slow to get the kind of turnovers he expects from their signature pressure defense.

"If you think of Tennessee defense, probably the first thing that would jump out at you is turnovers, forcing turnovers," Pearl said. "We're not forcing as many turnovers as any of my previous teams. We're bigger. We're slower. ... Because we're not as quick, we're not able to turn people over and make people go fast."

Pearl went so far as to suggest the Vols are ill-suited to press.

"We have to find another way — without forcing turnovers — to be an effective team," he said.

That new way would include a more patient offensive approach that does not include questionable shot selection.

"We may need to be a little more patient," Pearl said, before adding, "I don't know that my team has been more patient."

On Monday's coaches' teleconference, Pearl backed off a bit.

"We still like to press," he said before adding, "You can put them into position to press. Then you have to make plays in pressure. ... We're not making plays."

Pearl also noted improvement in the Tennessee defense.

"I think I see at least recognition of what we're not doing and where we're not doing it," he said, "as opposed to before, when I saw confusion. I think we were dazed and confused."

As for more patience offensively, Pearl said that he would prefer good shots in a fast-paced game.

"We play better going fast," he said. "That's never changed. That's been the case. I hope it's always the case."

Gillispie noted how athleticism and a deep roster enable Tennessee's pressure to compare favorably with earlier UK foes such as North Carolina and Kansas State.

"They're probably the deepest, most athletic (and) long team that we've seen," the UK coach said. "Their pressure, they can really ratchet it up. The most important thing is they've been good and getting better."

With its pressure, Tennessee will "make the inbounds pass very difficult," Gillispie said, as opposed to trying to deny a second pass by trapping the player catching the inbounds.

If Tennessee presses against Kentucky, it suggests scoring opportunities for Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, the UK scorers who have to battle defenses set to contain them in the half-court.

But true to the media guide for coaches, Gillispie did not buy the premise of an opponent's vulnerability.

"If you beat it initially," he said of the Vols' pressure, "you might have an opening. But the opening will close very quickly because of their athleticism and size."

As the season unfolds, Kentucky has handled pressure better. Gillispie noted that the Cats had only one turnover in the backcourt against Louisville's pressure. Many of the 21 turnovers came in the front court once UK had broken the press.

After Kentucky beat Vanderbilt last weekend, point guard Michael Porter spoke of how Kentucky wanted to approach Tennessee's pressure.

"It's just a matter of us playing smart, handling the ball and rebounding," he said. "If we do those things, we have a great chance of winning."