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Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has gotten the message across to his players that defense is key.

Tennessee basketball analysis: Defense keys Vols’ growth as contenders

Tennessee basketball is growing up before our eyes.

The key, budding sophomore superstar Grant Williams realizes, is on the defensive end of the floor.

“It’s just understanding what we’re good at, and what mindset we’re dealing with,” Williams said on the SEC Network after his 37-point effort propelled the No. 24-ranked Vols past Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday night, 92-84. “This team, we have to guard the entire game, and that’s how we’ll win.”

RELATED: 3 things about Tennessee’s win at Vanderbilt

That will certainly be the case when Tennessee (11-4, 2-2 SEC) returns home Saturday for a 6 p.m. contest against Texas A&M (TV: SEC Network).

SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes, like Williams, identified the Vols’ defensive effort as key to the team reaching its potential.

“If Tennessee is going to finish in the top 3 or 4 (in the SEC), they’re going to have to get back to being hard-nosed defensive team, rebounding team that really moves the ball,” Dykes said after the Vols rallied from a sloppy first half and 10-point deficit at Vanderbilt. “We saw them getting back to that again.”

Indeed, Tennessee opened the SEC portion of its schedule with consecutive losses at Arkansas and at home to an Auburn team led by former Vols’ basketball icon Bruce Pearl.

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, looking to lead the Vols to what would be their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years, called out his team for being “immature” in the disappointing loss to the Tigers.

Barnes felt better after beating the Commodores — the first back-to-back wins in Memorial Gym for Tennessee since 2001 and ’03 — but he made it clear there’s work to be done.

“You look at the stat line in the first half, Kyle Alexander was straight zeroes, John Fulkerson straight zeroes and (Jordan) Bowden was straight zeroes, you can’t be a two-man team,” Barnes said, referring to Williams and Admiral Schofield (22) scoring career highs.

“We still have to get more consistent play from Kyle and John, we have to know what we’re going to get from John every night, and we don’t right now, we have no clue what he will bring us.”

The Vols got outscored by four points at Vanderbilt with Alexander on the floor, and by eight with Fulkerson in the game.

The Aggies (11-5, 0-4) feature one of the bigger front lines in the league, and they will be desperate for a win in Thompson-Boling Arena after a puzzling start to the conference slate. Winless through four conference games, Texas A&M was ranked in the top 5 — in the nation — just two weeks ago.

The Vols, No. 15 according to the KenPom ratings, are No. 29 in the nation in adjusted defense.