Some coaches might like a break at this point in the season. Some might wish the schedule brought a couple games with LSU and a nice, easy finish. Bruce Pearl? He loves a challenge:
"The approach that I’m taking with my team is for the rest of the way, we’re playing against teams...these games are going to prepare us. The only way you get to be playing your best basketball is when you’re playing against the best teams. They force you to. So that’s what our approach is as we leave this afternoon for Florida."
Unless the Vols finish third in the East - more on that in a second - and do get LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament, every single game from here on out will be against bubble and tournament teams. Tennessee goes to Gainesville tonight, hosts #2 Kentucky on Saturday, will play Arkansas on senior night in Knoxville, and then play Mississippi State on the Bulldogs' senior night. Three bubble teams, including the co-leaders of the SEC West, and a date with perhaps the best team in the country. For a Tennessee team in search of its best basketball, there are no more easy wins on the schedule. And it will take the same level of good, consistent play to win in March as will be necessary over the next two weeks.
You can find Tennessee anywhere from a 3 to a 7 seed in current bracket projections, and against this schedule there's still plenty of room for movement. Both SBN and ESPN have moved the Vols into "lock" status for the tournament, but I'll be a lot more convinced with one more win. But with a strong finish, the 3 line is absolutely on the table. And with a terrible finish, so is the bubble. The stakes are high for the Vols and their opponents...and perhaps the most important of these final four games is tonight.
The Gators put themselves inside the bubble, for now, with a big win in Oxford on Saturday. For both teams, tonight's game is about more than NCAA Tournament seeding: Tennessee and Florida are deadlocked at 8-4 in the SEC, tied for third in the Eastern Division. Kentucky is going to win the division, and though Vanderbilt is only a game ahead of the Vols and Gators for second at 9-3, their season sweep of the Vols means they would win any tiebreakers.
Tennessee's 61-60 win over Florida on January 31 ensures the Vols of at least a split with Florida this season, and a win tonight would almost guarantee the Vols third place in the East, considering Florida's remaining schedule (at Georgia, vs Vanderbilt, at Kentucky). If the Gators win tonight and the two teams finish with identical records, the next tiebreaker is record vs. division. Being that both Tennessee and Florida are undefeated against the SEC West (with the Vols yet to face Arkansas and Mississippi State), both schools have four East losses right now. Lots of things could happen...and the best way to avoid coming up short on a tiebreaker is to take care of business tonight.
Third in the East doesn't come with a bye, but it does come with the next best thing: an opening round date with LSU, followed by a game against the SEC West runner-up. For the Gators, it could be just the extra win they need to feel secure on Selection Sunday. For the Vols, who have a terrible history with the SEC Tournament...well, we'll take all the help we can get.
A Florida win tonight would do wonders for their tournament resume, and put them in the driver's seat for third place. A Tennessee win would continue the late-season momentum the Vols are trying to build, and help the Vols move north in the bracket. Every win from here on out would be a quality one, and would give the Vols a better chance to make the second weekend of the tournament - the Vols need to finish as a 6 seed or higher to avoid the truly great teams in the tournament in its first weekend. With plenty of room for movement still available, the Vols need wins to make sure they're going in the right direction on the seed line.
Some observations about the matchup:
- We start where we always do with these guys: Bruce Pearl is 8-1 against Florida. The Vols have found ways to beat the Gators' best teams, and found ways to survive when need be (case in point: January 31). Dane Bradshaw will be the guest color commentator for the Vol Network tonight - he's worth at least two points.
- Florida hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since they won it: back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007 have been followed by back-to-back NITs in 2008 and 2009. In each of the last three seasons, the Gators have had opportunities at home in the final weeks of the season, and not gotten the job done. They lost three of their final four home games in 2008, lost to the Vols in Gainesville on March 1 last year, and ten days ago they fell to Xavier by a dozen points in the O-Dome. Like beating the Vols, winning a game that gets them into the tournament would be a new experience for this group.
- Florida is the most balanced team in the conference: all five starters average double figures. All of them - Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, and Vernon Macklin - are capable of leading the team on any given night, and as such it will take a complete defensive performance from the Vols to keep the Gators at bay. There can be no lapses and no letdown with this group. Tyus and Parsons hurt the Vols last time - 32 points and 15 rebounds combined - but Tennessee held Boynton to 2 of 11 shooting, Florida shot only 25.0% beyond the arc, and the Vols turned them over 17 times. That, plus a +6 rebound advantage, still required a Scotty Hopson contested jumper and good look from Tyus to rim out. I think these two teams are very even.
- Florida also relies on its starters more than any team. Dan Werner gets a ton of minutes as a sixth man, but after him the Gators have no one of consequence off the bench. If the Vols can get Florida in foul trouble, or if the transition game allows the Vols to speed up the pace and use their depth to their advantage, Tennessee's chances of winning go way up.
- As tournament-quality play begins, the Vols need their best players to be at their best. Last time Tennessee attacked inside with Wayne Chism - he shot only 6 of 16, but still got 16 points and 11 rebounds. Despite Florida's size, Chism can be the best post player on the floor. Tennessee needs J.P. Prince to fill up the stat sheet as usual, and needs Bobby Maze to continue to play well with increased minutes at both guard positions. And the Vols don't beat Florida in Knoxville without Scotty Hopson...that will probably be true in Gainesville too.
Florida's trying to get in. The Vols are trying to move up. This might be the most even matchup in the SEC in a game of great importance...do the Vols have what it takes to beat the Gators one more time?
9:00 PM EST - ESPN