KNOXVILLE—The narrative of Tennessee’s season-opening win centered around senior forward Yves Pons and his elite defensive presence, cementing him as a leading candidate to repeat as SEC Defensive Player of the Year while pushing him into the conversation for the nationwide honor.
A 71-63 loss to Alabama on Saturday inside Thompson-Boling Arena further cemented Pons as one of the best defenders in the country, just in different fashion, and in a way the No. 7 Vols hope to avoid going forward.
Pons was limited to 21 minutes after picking up three fouls in his first six minutes on the court, and Alabama took advantage, shooting 15-for-29 (.517) with Pons on the bench compared to 11-for-33 (.333) with him patrolling the paint.
“In a game like this, and really any game, there are sometimes where you can throw out the scouting report and guys just have to buck up and say, ‘Hey man, it’s me and you,’ especially in a situation like this where they want to run a spread game and pick on guys,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
“We can’t tackle somebody and stop them from shooting the ball, but we have to make them shoot as difficult a shot as we can, and we didn’t do a good enough job with that.”
Alabama sophomore guard John Shackleford scored through contact to tack Pons with his second foul with 15 minutes, 34 seconds remaining in the first half. Pons returned at the 9:16 mark with the score tied at 14 and the Vols (7-1, 1-1 SEC) forced the Crimson Tide (7-3, 2-0) to miss three consecutive field-goal attempts before Pons went back to the bench.
The Fuveau, France native’s presence was missed the most after picking up his third foul 17 seconds into the second half when Alabama was able to penetrate and force Tennessee’s defense to collapse, leading to over-rotations when the Crimson Tide kicked out to the perimeter.
Alabama hit five 3-pointers in a three-minute, four-second span to build a 48-36 lead with 15:21 left to play.
“He’s a guy who makes fix-it plays all over the court, and so when he’s out, we have to come together even more because we know that we don’t have somebody flying and contesting every shot at the rim,” sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James said. “We have to try our best to keep him out there, and it really starts with us guarding the ball because some of the calls that he got called for started with the on-ball defense. We have to protect each other and have each other’s backs.”
Pons proved capable of avoiding similar stretches when he stepped back on the court with 14:59 remaining, notching five second-half blocks in a five-minute, 15-second span to give Tennessee a chance late.
The Crimson Tide hit eight of their final 24 shots with Pons on the court, but offensive struggles prevented the Vols from being able to mount a comeback. Tennessee shot a season-low 31.8% from the floor, including 4-of-21 (.190) from behind the 3-point line.
“We needed some momentum, and when I got back on the court, I tried to be that person,” Pons said. “This is what I do, getting blocks and playing defense, but it wasn’t enough. It takes more than one person to get it done … but we can be better from it.”
Pons was the only Tennessee player who logged multiple minutes to record a positive box score plus-minus (5). He may be the Vols’ best defender, but UT has to find a way to be close to the defense that ranks first in adjusted defensive efficiency (83.6 points per 100 offensive possession), according to KenPom, without him.
“This is good for us because it was everything we’ve talked about for the last two weeks,” Barnes said. “We haven’t gotten it done the way we’ve needed to. … We didn’t deserve to win, and they did.”