Record: 18-3 (5-1 SEC)
O-Eff: 117.0 (10)
D-Eff: 95.3 (74)
Tennessee is reeling. Some of us are a little less worried than others, but I think at this point most of us are concerned about our chances of winning the SEC or even making the NCAA tournament. I've been beating the "we're young" drum all year but even I thought we'd see more consistent improvement by this stage of the season. We've been ravaged by a schedule that, in my opinion, was over the head of this team. I have often commended our coaches for scheduling up and I won't turn on them now . . . but it's nearly certain that the grueling non-conference slate affected the confidence and legs of a team that badly needed to keep both fresh. The road has been long and difficult and this team just hasn't been able to find itself.
Things aren't going to get easier anytime soon, with 18-3 Florida rolling into town tomorrow and visits to Arkansas and Auburn scheduled for next week.
Florida is off to a quick 5-1 start in SEC play and is playing much better basketball now than they were during the non-conference schedule. They played a weak schedule then and I didn't expect a lot from this team, but their level of play has elevated enough that Vol fans should be pretty concerned about this game in Thompson-Boling Arena (9pm, ESPN).
Who they have: Florida lost big man Marreese Speights and guard Jai Lucas off of last year's 24-12 squad, but the team has rallied around PG Nick Calathes (6'6" SO, 17.8 PPG, 6.6 APG, 5.4 RPG, 43.0% 3FG), who has developed into a very complete player. Starting with Calathes are Walter Hodge (6'0" SR guard, 7.7 PPG, 38.8% 3FG), Chandler Parsons (6'9" SO forward 10.0 PPG, 5.6 RPG), Dan Werner (6'8" JR forward, 9.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 35.1% 3FG), and Alex Tyus (6'8" SO forward, 12.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG).
Florida will go nine-deep, with Erving Walker (5'8" FR guard, 9.2 PPG, 23.0 MPG), Kenny Kadji (6'10" FR center, 5.4 PPG, 13.6 MPG), Ray Shipman (6'5" FR wing, 4.2 PPG, 13.8 MPG), and Allan Chaney (6'8" FR forward, 3.4 PPG, 10.7 MPG). Maybe it jumped out at you, as it did me, that the Gator nine-deep includes four freshmen and three sophomores. That's something to keep an eye on for this year and in the future.
What Florida does well: The Gators excel offensively (10th nationally in efficiency), and are equally adept at shooting (4th in eFG%) and ball handling (47th in TO rate). They shoot very well from the perimeter (59th) but really excel inside, ranking 4th in the nation in 2FG%.
Defensively Florida is pretty solid (74th in D-efficiency), particularly in forcing turnovers (49th in TO rate). They also keep their foes off the free throw line (66th in FTA/FGA).
Where the Gators struggle: Offensively their primary weakness is that they don't get to the line enough, ranking 293rd in the nation in FTA/FGA and 331st in percentage of points scored from the line. Of course, when you shoot that well from the field this doesn't hurt you as much.
They're merely average rebounders (134th offensively, 124th defensively), a big dropoff from a year ago when Speights led the Gators to the top 80 in both categories. Defensively, they don't defend the paint very well (171st in 2FG% allowed) and don't block many shots (219th), and are just average in several other categories despite a weak schedule.
Gameplan/style: These Gators will run at times (10 games at 70 possessions or more) but player slower at others (11 below 70), with two of their worst games (losses to Syracuse and South Carolina) coming at faster paces. In those games, the pace seemed to affect both their propensity to turn the ball over and to stop the other offense. Whether Bruce decides to press or play them straight up in the halfcourt will be an interesting strategic decision.
Offensively Florida scores a lot of points off of crisp passing, ranking 32nd nationally in A/FGM. Calathes has a lot to do with this, ranking 21st in assist rate. This must be a concern for Tennessee and Coach Pearl; except for Memphis (153) and Gonzaga (139), all of the Vols' losses have come against teams in the top 100 in A/FGM.
Generally speaking it would be wise to attack Florida in the paint. Outside of Werner there is little experience inside, and despite the length and and height of the youngsters they are not a great 2FG defensive team and don't disrupt or rebound well. This is a game when Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism need to aggressively take the ball at the rim, something they failed to do against LSU.
Defensively, containing Calathes must be priority one and is a pretty scary proposition considering the way opposing guards have burned the nets against the Tennessee defense. From Steven Gray (19) to Dionte Christmas (35) to Sheron Collins (26) to Matt Bouldin (26) to Jodie Meeks (54) to Tyreke Evans (17) to Marcus Thornton (29), every Tennessee loss has been marked by huge output from an opposing guard. Many of those were season and career highs for that particular guard.
How it will play out: I'm an eternal optimist. It's just in my nature to believe that the next game will be that turnaround game, and Tennessee is just on the verge of kicking things into gear. It is therefore scary to express what I see in this game: a better Gator team despite its youth, and a team whose youth has matured a lot faster than Tennessee's. I recognize that Coach Pearl is 5-1 against Billy Donovan, and many Vol fans are sure that he has Florida's number; all of that may be true. But the same could be said of Memphis, a team that consistently has brought out the best in Tennessee, and a team that Tennessee couldn't take down in Knoxville. Unfortunately I see this going the same way, though I'd love for Tyler, Wayne, J.P., Josh, Bobby, and the young Vols to prove me wrong. Something just isn't right about this team right now and Florida at home would be a really tough game in which to expect major improvement. My prediction: Gators 76, Vols 70 in 70 possessions.