NEW YORK -- Three things we learned from No. 24 Tennessee's 78-68 win over No. 7 Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off final:
1. The Volunteers are serious about backcourt D.
Melvin Goins Sr., stood beside the scorer's table at Madison Square Garden following the game, saying to any Tennessee fan within earshot, "That's the best defensive guard in the country -- and he just showed it against Guard U!"
He was talking about his son, Melvin II, the Vols' senior floor general, who'd just led a stunning lockdown effort of Villanova guards Maalik Wayns (3-for-11 shooting, four assists, five turnovers) and Corey Fisher (1-of-10 shooting, one assist, six turnovers). Wayns and Fisher combined for 42 points in Wednesday's semifinal against UCLA; they finished with 14 on Friday while being guarded (mostly) by Goins and teammate Scotty Hopson.
We, of course, are obliged to point out the parental bias behind Mr. Goins' superlatives. But by any standard, his son's defensive performance made him far more valuable to Tennessee than his 1-of-8 shooting line would suggest. When Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes recruited Goins out of Mt. San Jacinto JC two years ago, Forbes was enamored with Goins' potential as a physical, on-the-ball defender -- which he displayed on Friday by refusing to yield driving lanes to Wayns and Fisher. Villanova coach Jay Wright compared Goins to a defensive back (saying, "he's broad shouldered, strong and gets real low") and praised the Vols' guards' refusal to grant Fisher many decent one-on-one opportunities. Usually a bullish penetrator who forces his way to the free-throw line with ease, Fisher only drew one whistle in 30 minutes.
Goins had four steals -- including two late thefts to help seal the victory -- but it was mainly his textbook footwork and positioning that kept Fisher and Wayns under wraps. "They're both great drivers, so you want to stay solid, not gamble, and retreat until you can [safely] make contact with them," Goins said. "If you press up too much, those type of guys will blow right past you."
He credited his dad -- who coached him from youth basketball up until the eighth grade -- with instilling the proper defensive principles. "He always stressed defense, because he said it's something you can control," Goins said. "It's 90 percent effort, 90 percent desire."
Hmm. The formula may not add up ... but the effort was impressive.
2. Scotty Hopson needs to stay in "attack mode."
With just under two minutes left in the game, and the Vols up 67-62, Hopson caught a fastbreak pass on the left wing, just in front of head coach Bruce Pearl. At point-blank range, Pearl shouted, "ATTACK! ATTACK!" His star junior complied, slashing straight at the rim in three steps for a layup. He may not have even needed the encouragement, because for most of the second half Hopson was putting on a driving show, finishing more adeptly -- knifing through the Wildcats' big men -- and more aggressively than he did as a freshman and sophomore. His final line of 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting -- just the second time he's shot over .500 from the field in five games -- was enough to earn him tournament MVP honors.
Hopson has been labeled somewhat of an underachiever by college pundits and NBA scouts alike, who've been waiting three years for him to begin to take over games. He's aware of that rep -- "Coach Pearl has told me not to be lackadaisical out there, and the more I mature, the more I stay in attack mode," he said -- and needs to consistently deliver efficient offensive outings like Friday's. As much as freshman point forward Tobias Harris is a matchup problem, Hopson is the Vols' most lethal scorer when he's focused, in large part because he can't he can't be contained on the perimeter.
3. Villanova may still have fouling issues.
The Wildcats were 329th in the country in defensive free-throw rate last season, but their numbers through the first five games of 2010-11 suggested they'd fixed the problem. Against its first truly athletic opponent of the season, though, 'Nova was back to its old, fouling form: Seven of the eight players Wright used had two first-half fouls, putting them in a precarious situation for the second half. Wayns, Fisher and third guard Corey Stokes all fouled out in the final two minutes, leaving them with no chance to make a miraculous, late rally. If the Wildcats can't avoid whistles in the Big East, they'll have little shot of challenging Pitt, UConn and Georgetown for the league title.