KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has learned a thing or two lately about the best teams in the nation.
"There's a reason why they're good," Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It's because they can do multiple things, they can do a lot of different things and beat you so many different ways."
The Vols (8-10) are preparing for a little bit of everything when defending national champion Connecticut (14-4) visits on Saturday. The No. 13 Huskies, who beat the Vols 72-61 a season ago in Hartford, will be their fourth Top 25 opponent in two weeks and seventh of the season.
Tennessee has won just one of those games, a 67-56 victory against then-No. 13 Florida on Jan. 7 in Knoxville. The Vols used their strongest defensive performance of the season to upset the Southeastern Conference's highest-scoring team.
That improvement on defense has kept the Vols competitive in games against No. 18 Mississippi State, No. 2 Kentucky and Georgia since then, but it hasn't translated into wins.
"They're one of the more deceptive 8-10 teams you're going to see," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "They play good people, and they've been right there with every one of those teams, so we have our work cut out for us."
Though Tennessee may not be among the top teams in the nation, it has been able to do different things and beat teams with different approaches this season. The Vols have a reliable offensive performer in point guard Trae Golden, a big post presence thanks to Jeronne Maymon, Kenny Hall and newcomer Jarnell Stokes, and a growing understanding of how to play tough defense.
They just haven't been able to put all of those pieces together consistently enough to survive such a tough schedule.
"They're still very athletic. They're still very dangerous," Calhoun said. "I think they have too many players not to be good in the future."
Tennessee could become a more dangerous team with better ball control. The Vols have averaged 15.4 turnovers in their last five games, including a season-high 20 giveaways in their 57-53 overtime loss at Georgia on Wednesday.
It's not anything opponents are doing to cause all of those turnovers, either.
"We can't shoot ourselves in the foot, so to speak, with 20 turnovers a game. You've got to give yourself a chance to win the game," Martin said. "For us, turning the ball over is really our program doing what we need to do to take care the ball because when you watch film, I don't see where there's a lot of pressure being applied to turn the ball over."
The Vols also will need to revive the kind of defensive effort they had against the Gators and Wildcats if they hope to upset Connecticut, which has lost just once in nonconference games this season. Sophomore guards Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier combine for 32.3 points per game, while freshman forward Andre Drummond has been solid inside.
The game is being billed as a "We Back Pat" celebration in honor of Lady Volunteers coach Pat Summitt, who announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Proceeds from "We Back Pat" T-shirts that fans are being encouraged to wear will go to the Pat Summitt Foundation Fund in support of Alzheimer's awareness programs.
The Vols and the Huskies also will don special warm-up shirts in honor of Summitt, who has more wins than any other NCAA basketball coach. Summitt kept an intense rivalry with Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma before ending the series after the 2006-07 season, and the pair's programs have combined for 15 national championships.
Saturday's game also marks Martin's first attempt to beat Calhoun, who recruited him as a high school player. Martin narrowed his college choices to Purdue and Connecticut, ultimately choosing to join the Boilermakers for the 1991-92 season.
As a sophomore starter at Purdue, Martin helped lead the Boilermakers to a 73-69 win against the Huskies with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Of course, the thing that stands out to Martin now was his mistakes — the same ones his Vols are making now.
"In that game they pressed a lot," he said. "I think I had five turnovers that night. Man."