The narrative is the same as it's been since 2006. Florida has been the best team in the SEC in those nine years, two National Championships and now three straight Elite Eights. In nine of our last sixteen meetings the Gators have been ranked in the Top 15, and in only four of those sixteen meetings have the Vols been the higher ranked team.
Florida has done it better than anyone in this league in the last nine years. And in those nine years, Tennessee is 11-5 against them.
Cuonzo Martin is 3-0 against Florida teams ranked 8th, 13th, and 8th. And so here they come again, 16-2, winners of ten straight, and ranked 6th. And here again Tennessee has a chance to make its biggest statement of the season by winning at Florida.
We said in the Arkansas postgame we were going to crunch numbers less and enjoy the moment more, but it's worth pointing out that no remaining game could help Tennessee's RPI and tournament resume like this one. With Missouri falling back to earth in a 2-3 SEC start with losses to Georgia, Vanderbilt, and LSU, and the Vols having already missed their one chance at Kentucky in the regular season, Florida is the last big fish in the pond. There will be a second battle in Knoxville on February 11, but no single win would be worth more than a W at the O'Connell Center tomorrow.
Florida is an incredible shooting team, second in the league at 46.2% from the floor and first in effective FG%. It comes from everywhere, with five players averaging double figures including the familiar trio of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Patric Young. Add in a sophomore surge from Michael Frazier and the arrival of Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith and you've got another balanced Florida squad that can hurt you at all five positions even before we deal with bench players like Will Yeguete.
The Gators have also been good at protecting the ball and defending without fouling; Florida gives away very little for free, you have to be good enough to beat them straight up. And so far this year they've been the best in the league on the defensive end, first in the SEC in points per possession allowed.
How has Tennessee managed to beat them straight up? The usual rebounding advantage, of course - the Vols were +10 in rebounding margin in last year's only meeting and won points in the paint 36-14 in the 2012 contest in Gainesville. But defense has been the biggest factor for Tennessee against Florida under Cuonzo, forcing 30 turnovers in two games in 2012 and then holding Florida to 23.5% from the arc in last year's game. This year you know you're going to get great defense from Florida, so Tennessee will have to match their intensity on that end of the floor to give themselves a chance to win again.
In their 5-0 SEC start Florida has been strong at home against lesser competition, beating South Carolina and Georgia by a combined 38 points. But on the road the Gators have been more vulnerable, needing overtime to win at Arkansas and finishing a sweep of the state of Alabama this week with a seven point win at Auburn and a six point win at Alabama. They're still perfect in league play and their only blemishes are a one point loss at UConn and a six point loss at Wisconsin. But they're not unbeatable, and if anyone can get past them right now perhaps it's a Tennessee program that plays a brand of basketball Florida just doesn't like very much.
In our other two big road chances the Vols were betrayed by only one of their stars showing up. At Wichita Jordan McRae had 26 points but Jarnell Stokes played just 21 minutes before fouling out with only eight. At Rupp last Saturday Stokes played the best game of his UT career against stiff competition with a 20/15, but McRae went 5 of 14 from the floor and just 1 of 7 from the arc.
To beat a team like Florida, and to be the sort of team we all think we could be, we need everybody to contribute, and we need both of our superstars to play their A game. Florida will test the Vols man for man defensively, but they don't have good individual answers for McRae (27 points last year) or Stokes (14 rebounds in just 24 minutes last year). It will take everybody, but if those two are on, Tennessee can win this game.
Coming in it's the toughest challenge we've faced all year. But we've been saying that about playing Florida for nine years, and we've somehow found a way to come out on top far more often than not under two different head coaches. Can the Vols keep the streak going against Billy Donovan and the Gators, and score the biggest win of the season?
Let's find out. Go Vols.