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Rick Barnes is trying to get more consistent defensive play from his Vols.

Analysis: Defense failing Tennessee against better competition

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Rebounding proved to be the main problem for Tennessee in its loss to Auburn on Tuesday night, but there might be a bigger underlying issue for the Vols.

Tennessee has been one of the best defensive teams in the country this season, but that might be more fool’s gold than reality. The Vols have given up more than 90 points in their two SEC games this season, both losses.

Junior forward Kyle Alexander said Friday that the defense might regain its rhythm soon.

“I think we’ve gotten away from what got us to where we were defensively,” Alexander said. “We’ve put in a lot of work recently to get back to that. That needs to be our focal point again.”

There are 16 SEC games left on the schedule, so there is time to get the issues straightened out.

Coach Rick Barnes addressed what the defense has lacked.

“Effort, intensity and being on edge,” Barnes said. “Again, everyone just doing their job and not taking anything for granted. I think if nothing else, I hope they’ve learned if we don’t play that way we’re not a very good basketball team. I hope that they realize that.”

But the problem might be more than just getting players locked in and trying harder. When the competition has elevated, the Vols defense has shrunk this season.

Tennessee is 9-4. In each win, the Vols held their opponent to 75 points or less. The most impressive of the wins was a 78-75 victory over Purdue, which is ranked No. 13 this week.

Villanova scored 85 points in its win over Tennessee. North Carolina scored 78 in a come-from-behind victory in Thompson-Boiling Arena.

The Vols have feasted on weaker teams that don’t have the guard play to make crisp half-court passes. The numbers were spectacular against the likes of Presbyterian, High Point and Furman.

Villanova, North Carolina, Arkansas and Auburn shot a combined 45.6 percent from the field. The Vols did hold Purdue to 37.3 percent shooting.

Tennessee needs to find the success it had against Purdue as it marches deeper into SEC play.

No. 7 Kentucky comes to Knoxville on Saturday with a 12-2 record. If the Wildcats score with ease and get to the basket without much issue, the Vols’ dreams of making the NCAA Tournament might not come to fruition.