SEC Tournament: Tennessee vs Florida Preview

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

How can the Vols knock off the number one team in the land?

When it gets to this week in March, you just never know.  Why was Tennessee's win yesterday so important?  While the Vols, Pittsburgh, and Providence moved into the "should be in" category with Friday wins, a handful of landmines are also still playing today:  St. Bonaventure is in the Atlantic 10 semifinals, NC State is in the ACC semifinals, and you knew somebody had to come out of that Georgia/Ole Miss matchup to play in the SEC semifinals.  So there are three bid steals still on the table, and teams who are now finished have to be getting very nervous.

Meanwhile Tennessee has won five straight, and moves on to what ESPN's Bubble Watch calls an all-upside game with top-ranked Florida.

What the Gators have done this year is a sight to behold.  Florida is 30-2 with a six point loss at Wisconsin and a one point loss at UConn, winners of 24 straight and 19 for 19 against SEC foes.  They also beat Kansas and Memphis lest you doubt their power based on their league.  Tennessee is back up to 12th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, 21st in offense and 22nd in defense.  But the Gators are third overall on Pomeroy's list, 11th in offense and 8th in defense.  They are one of the more complete teams I can remember in recent SEC history, and you have to play every possession really well on both ends of the floor to give yourselves a chance.

The Gators were only tested a handful of times in the SEC, all but one (Auburn's near miss in Gainesville) coming in hostile environments like Fayetteville, Nashville, and definitely Knoxville.  The Vols were down 55-54 after a sensational three point play by Jarnell Stokes with 4:32 to go, then got the ball back with a chance to take the lead.  But a Jeronne Maymon turnover led to back-to-back dagger threes from Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin, and Florida won the free throw shooting contest down the stretch.  Playing well for 36 minutes is not good enough.

What was good enough that day was Tennessee's defense, holding the Gators to 36.2% from the floor.  It is the lowest percentage Florida has shot all year and only the fourth time they've shot under 40%.  The way Tennessee has been playing recently, that's very good news:  bring the effort on the defensive end again, and give yourself a chance to be there in the end again.  Our last four opponents have shot 22.4, 37.7, 31.9, and 27.1 percent from the floor.  The Vanderbilt, Missouri, and South Carolina numbers are UT's three best defensive performances against division one opponents this year. Our best basketball at the right time.

What was weird about the Florida game in Knoxville was despite their poor shooting numbers, the Gators were 8 of 21 from the arc; 38.1% is the ninth best percentage they've shot from downtown this year.  This is, in part, why Pomeroy considers us the 338th luckiest team in college basketball.

But against Florida you have to make your own luck, and it's on Tennessee's best basketball to do just that.

Last time Wilbekin had 21, but it came on 5 of 17 shooting and 10 of 12 at the line, many down the stretch.  Tennessee's x-factors struggled again, which is also encouraging since we played them so close anyway:  Antonio Barton was still out of the starting lineup and went 0 for 2 from the arc, and the Vols had just 8 assists to 15 turnovers.  Jeronne Maymon had eight of those turnovers by himself.  I'd be willing to bet he's going to play a lot better today.

Stats wise, here's the number one thing today:  in two games against Florida, Tennessee had six assists in Gainesville and eight in Knoxville.  Those are two of UT's four lowest assist totals on the year.  Credit Florida's outstanding defense for that; Florida gives up just nine assists on average.  But Tennessee is 16-2 when getting 12+ assists, which means getting everybody involved.  Jarnell Stokes was good enough to beat South Carolina by himself, but Patric Young will be standing in the way today.  Jordan McRae had the worst game of his career in Gainesville in part because no other perimeter players could even get a good look.

Tennessee's best basketball involves everyone.  If Tennessee can get multiple players involved in the scoring today besides Stokes and McRae, and plays the kind of defense it played in Knoxville and has been playing in the last three weeks, Tennessee can have a chance to win at the end.  Florida is still #1 Florida and it will take something special to win.  But playing at the level we've been playing at the last three weeks, Tennessee is good enough to be there in the end again.

If the real question is how good can this team be, you'll get no better chance to answer it than today.  Beat Florida, and this team and everyone will know that Tennessee is in fact for real, and a threat to every team in any bracket.  The biggest win of the season is available in just a few hours.

Go Vols.

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