This remains my favorite picture of the season.
The biggest win of Cuonzo Martin's young career in Knoxville was January 7 against Florida. The Memphis game in Maui felt like something special until the end, though it turned out to be a false alarm. The UConn game may end up being more memorable because of the way Jarnell Stokes played. But the best team Tennessee owns a win over this season is, without question, the Gators.
Florida stands at 19-5 (7-2). There are a pair of single digit road losses to Ohio State and Syracuse and a curious double overtime loss to Rutgers. But between their loss to us in the SEC opener and their loss at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, the Gators beat everybody else. Everybody else includes LSU and Mississippi State by a dozen and Vanderbilt by eight points, plus Ole Miss on the road.
The Vols beat the Gators with sensational defense, plain and simple. Florida averages 79 points per game, 12th nationally and first in the SEC. The Vols held them to 56, still their lowest total of the season; only Kentucky (58) has also held them under 64. Florida shoots 46.7% from the floor and a best-in-the-SEC 39.5% from the arc. The Vols held them to 35.7% from the floor and 31.8% from the arc - only Kentucky held them to a lower percentage overall, and only three teams have done a better job guarding the three point line.
Tennessee's performance wasn't a fluke, as we've discovered in the last month. Florida's part of that equation has looked familiar in the last two weeks: even if you throw the Kentucky performance out because everyone looks bad in Rupp Arena, the Gators have struggled from the floor in their last two home games against South Carolina (37.3%) and Vanderbilt (38.3%). They were able to win both games thanks to free throw shooting (23 of 32 against Carolina, 16 of 17 against Vandy) and a strong performance from three against the Dores (11 of 24). But their numbers are trending in the wrong direction. So either they're due - and many will be playing the rebound card after the performance against Kentucky - or they've truly cooled off, and Tennessee's defense is the last thing they want to see.
I don't think the Vols were lucky against Florida the first time. I think Tennessee matches up very well with Florida, and should follow the same gameplan as before: put all the emphasis on stopping the Gators from the arc and force Patric Young to beat you inside. The 6'9" sophomore averages 10.8 per game but hasn't scored more than 15 since conference play began. He had a dozen against the Vols the first time, but it wasn't nearly enough because the Gators shot just 7 of 22 from the arc.
We haven't even mentioned Jarnell Stokes yet, who didn't play against South Carolina with a sprained wrist. Cuonzo Martin said yesterday he expects Stokes to play, but Kenny Hall will get the start. Hall has seen his minutes decrease to 15.5 per game since Stokes arrived, but back on January 7 he played the game of his life against the Gators: 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting and 5 rebounds, pushing the Vols in the second half and keeping Florida at bay. He's turned into a pretty good shot blocker as well - Tennessee is going to need him to be big again today.
If the Vols defend well again, this game could again come down to UT's offense and its (in)ability to score just enough points to win. Last time against the Gators that number was 67, though 57 would've done the trick. But on the road it's never been enough: since an 89-81 loss at Oakland in November, Tennessee averages just 51.8 points per game on the road in regulation. The last three: 46 in Athens, 47 in Nashville, 44 in Lexington. Those numbers don't beat anybody. The other common thread is three point shooting: 2 of 15 in Athens, 1 of 10 in Nashville, 2 of 12 (non-Swipa) in Lexington. Again: those numbers don't beat anybody, especially with Stokes at less than 100%.
Much of UT's road woes can be cured with simple survival. Vanderbilt opened the game on a 9-0 run. Kentucky hit their first eleven shots on a 26-8 run. If Florida starts hot, the Vols haven't shown they can bounce back since Memphis in Maui, which was almost a completely different team. And if Tennessee comes out jacking threes and shoots the same miserable percentage we've seen on the road recently, it can be over before the second media timeout. Especially early, the Vols need to get in there and bang. It should be noted that the first victory against the Gators included just ten attempted three pointers (and we made five, which always helps) but six players scoring at least seven points.
What's at stake: the Vols are up to 138 in RPI, back even at 12-12 and tied for sixth in the SEC at 4-5. To get in the NIT conversation, Tennessee needs to get that RPI in double digits and get their record above .500. And the higher the Vols finish in the SEC, the better their chances of stealing an NCAA bid in New Orleans - if Tennessee can sweep the Gators, we can start having real conversations about earning a first round bye in the SEC Tournament.
You can only play so many of these "we have nothing to lose against a good team on the road" games before you get the reputation of being unable to compete in them. That needs to change today, against a team the Vols know they can not just beat but dictate to. If the defensive gameplan and effort we saw in Knoxville returns today, Tennessee will have a chance to win. It remains on Tennessee's shoulders to do just enough on the offensive end to reward their defensive effort.
4:00 PM ET - SEC Network/ESPN3