Tennessee’s defense is the best ever in college basketball’s modern era. Find out what makes the Vols so dangerous on that end of the floor.

Tennessee has consistently had one of the nation’s best defenses during Rick Barnes’ eight seasons in charge of the program. The Vols have built their identity on that end of the court, priding themselves on toughness and physicality.

That strategy has worked. Tennessee has posted a top-6 defense — per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric — in four of the last six seasons, including each of the last three.

This season is following a similar path. The Vols are ranked No. 2 in KenPom and No. 5 in the AP poll with Alabama (No. 4) being the only higher-ranked SEC team. Tennessee is the only team that has beaten Kansas, in addition to quality wins over Maryland, Mississippi State and USC. 

Unsurprisingly, the Vols have leaned on their defense in key moments. Tennessee has the nation’s top unit on that end, holding nine of its 15 opponents to 50 points or fewer.

“Our mentality coming into every game, we know if we stop our (man) and they don’t score, the game is still going to be 50-50 and still be even,” point guard Zakai Zeigler told reporters following Tennessee’s victory over Kansas at the Battle 4 Atlantis. “We know we can’t control if we make shots or not. But our mentality was pretty much just to stop the man in front of us, then just stay solid on the defensive end, because offense will come if you play solid defense.”

But Tennessee’s defense isn’t just elite. It’s historic.

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KenPom started tracking adjusted efficiency during the 2001-02 season, beginning the modern analytics era in college basketball. Tennessee is currently on pace to post the best defensive rating ever by a wide margin.

Best defenses in KenPom history
YearTeamAdj. Defensive Efficiency
2019Texas Tech84.1
2022Texas Tech85.0
Defensive efficiency measures points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for schedule strength.

It’s not just the overall number, either. Tennessee is putting up historic numbers on a game-to-game basis. Five of the 11 best single-game defensive efficiency ratings in program history already belong to this Vols team.

“You should never have an off night defensively. Ever.” Barnes told reporters earlier this season. “That’s just mental toughness and paying attention to a scouting report coming in. (It’s) your mental mindset and makeup before the game.”

Having that mindset is a must, but it also requires an elite scheme and high-level talent to accomplish something so historic.

Let’s dive into what the Volunteers are doing on the defensive end.

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