...and it's a big one.
This game separates itself from everything else in so many ways. Florida is the best team we've played all year, by far. Georgetown is rolling right now, Memphis is doing their usual C-USA business, and the Wichita State win still looks good, no doubt. But Florida is a different animal, a contender for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament and still very much in the driver's seat in this league. The Gators don't just win, they dominate: Florida's 12 SEC wins have come by an average of 25 points. That includes 22 points in Baton Rouge, 21 in College Station, 17 in Athens, 35 in Starkville, and 31 at Auburn. The Gators did lose at Arkansas and at Missouri (two teams they beat handily in Gainesville), so there is precedent, but not one a whole lot of people are putting a whole lot of weight in.
This is the biggest game of Cuonzo Martin's tenure at Tennessee, by far. The season finale win last year against Vanderbilt was huge, no doubt, as it got the Vols squarely on the bubble headed to the SEC Tournament. But given the quality of the opponent tonight and, in turn, what a win would do for us and for Cuonzo? This is as big as it's ever been for us the last two years.
Whatever history is worth, it is massively on our side. The only thing keeping us from calling this the best team Cuonzo has faced at UT is last year's Kentucky team...and when they came to Knoxville in Jarnell Stokes' very first game, they were lucky to get out alive by three points. Not just Bruce Pearl, but a Cuonzo Martin Tennessee team has stood toe to toe with the best of the best in Knoxville before.
And then there's this rivalry, which has been colored orange from the day Pearl walked in, which is even more impressive considering the Gators are clearly the best program in the SEC in these last eight years. The Vols are 10-5 against Florida since 2006. Florida's wins include a game in 2007 played without Chris Lofton, a Gainesville win in 2010, and a three game sweep in Pearl's last season. But any doubts about change in this rivalry were erased last year, when Tennessee dominated Florida twice, and neither game was as close as the final score indicated. First came the beacon of hope in Knoxville to open SEC play, where the Vols held Florida to 35.7% from the field and almost thirty points under their scoring average in a 67-56 win, a game the Vols led by as many as 16 points in the second half. In the rematch in Gainesville, the Vols led by 14 with two minutes to go before late Florida threes made the final score 75-70 Vols. It was Florida's first home loss of the season.
Keep in mind, that was an Elite Eight Florida team. And keep in mind...most of the personnel is exactly the same this year.
Forget the RPI, forget the bubble, forget the standings. Let's talk about what we can do to win. Because it will take the best of our best basketball to get the job done tonight.
What does this Florida team do well? Lots of things:
- Field Goal Percentage: 49.2%, 8th nationally, best in the SEC
- Three Pointers Attempted (597), Made (232), and Percentage (38.9%), all best in the SEC
- Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 72.3%, second in the SEC
- Assists Per Game (16.0) and Assist/Turnover Ratio (1.4), both best in the SEC. A/TO ratio is 9th nationally.
- Field Goal Percentage Defense: 37.3%, best in the SEC
- Opponent Three Point Percentage: 30.1%, best in the SEC
- Florida leads the SEC in both offensive and defensive effective FG%
- Florida leads the SEC in both offensive and defensive points per possession
At full strength Florida plays a dedicated eight man rotation, but the Gators will be without two of their bench players tonight: guard Michael Frazier II
(6.4 ppg) is out with a concussion, and forward Will Yeguete
(6.0 ppg/6.3 rpg) continues to miss action with a knee. That will leave the bulk of the action up to Casey Prather
and the Gator starting five, which is their best and most complete group since the 06-07 title teams.
Basically you've got Scotty Wilbekin running point, Patric Young
doing work down low, and then three shooters: Mike Rosario
, Kenny Boynton
, and Erik Murphy
. All five average between 9.1 (Wilbekin) and 13.0 (Rosario) points per game; this bunch is super balanced and four of the five can really shoot it, plus Young is putting in 61.0% of what he gets down low. While Boynton takes the most threes and certainly isn't bad at 33.5%, Murphy is the daggerman: a 47.9% three point shooter on 117 attempts, which is incredibly impressive this late in the season. To do that at 6'10" makes it an even bigger problem for the Vols: who guards this guy?
Tennessee, as you know, has been doing its best work of late in this five game winning streak with a four guard lineup. If we assume Stokes and Young are going to do battle, do the Vols break from the four guard lineup and put Kenny Hall in the game, or dance with what brought us? If so, does Josh Richardson
draw Murphy? And if that's the case, who does Armani Moore
guard, and can he stay on the floor without getting into foul trouble? It's a matchup nightmare on paper...but again, keep in mind the Vols ran this team twice last year with most of the same names on both sides, due in large part to the play of one Kenny Hall in the first game, who led the Vols in scoring that day.
I'm not as worried about the matchups as I am Florida's other tendencies. The Gators play an exceptionally efficient brand of basketball: Florida only averages 63.1 possessions per 40 minutes, the 12th slowest pace in the SEC. The numbers may be a bit skewed because Florida has played so many blowout games, but still, it's more about efficiency than speed with them. We play at 64.4 possessions per 40 minutes, so we're right there together. Every possession in this thing will be dangerous for us.
However, despite our current it's-not-the-heat-it's-the-humidity streak from the three point line (shooting 5 of 5, 10 of 15, 10 of 21 in 4 OT in our last three games for 60.9%), getting to the free throw line is still our lifeblood. We continue to lead the SEC and are now 13th nationally in free throw rate. It's what we do, and when we make a high percentage of them the way we have the last three weeks, we are very dangerous in our own right.
Here's my concern: the Gators foul less frequently than any other team in the SEC. Florida averages just 14 fouls per game. That's barely sniffing the bonus each half. Again, hopefully the blowout nature of some of their games skews the number a bit; refs are less likely to call fouls when the margin is 20-30 points, that's just human nature.
Can we get to the free throw line against this team? I don't know, but I do know we should absolutely continue to be the aggressor. The Vols exploited Florida defensively last year out of nowhere, twice. Even if we don't get to the line, this is a game where we have to take advantage of the chances we get, and the bunnies absolutely have to drop, especially for Jarnell Stokes. If we continue to get our best basketball from our three best players - Stokes, Trae Golden, and Jordan McRae - I continue to believe we'll have a chance to beat anybody, including this Florida team.
What I also expect is for us to give a sensational effort defensively and not give them anything easy, which - for a team that's used to scoring almost every time down the floor - will hopefully lead to more frustration. The Gators turned it over 15 times in both matchups last year, but currently average just 11.4 per game (again, you'll be surprised to hear it's the best in the SEC). We've done a good job extending our defense in the last three weeks and forcing more turnovers, but we'll also have to stay disciplined on the open man when Florida penetrates to create the open threes they've been getting. That means this is an incredibly important game for hard-nosed individual defense. That's Cuonzo's identity at his core, and I'm eager to see if we're up to the challenge tonight. HANDS!
It's a huge opportunity for us, the biggest one we've seen in the last two years. Florida is very, very good. But this Tennessee team knows how to beat them because we've done it twice before. It starts with defense, as it probably always will for a Cuonzo Martin team. Can we find the right combination and the right matchups on the floor, and take advantage? If Tennessee can frustrate the Gators and either find their way back to the free throw line or make sure we shoot a high percentage, I believe we'll have every chance to be there in the end. And if we want to keep shoting 61% from the three point line, fine by me.
9:00 PM tips are not for the faint of heart. And that means I expect the best crowd of the year to help carry us to the finish line tonight.