Seventeen years ago, the Blizzard of '93 knocked out power and delayed news reports all over East Tennessee, dumping more than a foot of snow on Big Orange Country. As a result, almost no one saw or heard about Kentucky's 101-40 annihilation of a 4-12 Tennessee team in the SEC Tournament, a game that set thirteen SEC Tournament records.
We point this out not to suggest that Florida is going to win by sixty-one points (or that another mythical Knoxville snow will end up playing any significant role in Sunday's events), but to remind us all that we've had much greater cause to give up on a team than the reasons we've seen in the last week. This Tennessee team is still 15-4, still playing with a depleted roster, and still has every opportunity to accomplish all of its goals.
To do that, we need to play better. And nothing cures what ails Tennessee like
playing Georgia playing Vanderbilt at home playing the Gators.
The 2005 arrivals of Urban Meyer in Gainesville and Bruce Pearl in Knoxville have changed everything about the Tennessee-Florida rivalry. It's become the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry pre-Pearl: one team always wins in football, the other returns the favor in basketball. Since 2005, the Gators are 5-0 against the Vols in football, and Tennessee has returned the favor seven out of eight times in basketball (this is the part where we point out that the lone exception came when Chris Lofton was injured and did not play). Pearl went 3-1 against Florida's two-time National Championship team, and has never looked back.
And though the two teams may have put better lineups on the floor than what we'll see on Sunday, for the Vols, beating the Gators may have never been more important than it will be tomorrow.
The good news for us is, we said the same thing 52 weeks ago, when a 12-7 Tennessee team hosted the Gators in the last weekend of January...and won by sixteen points. We needed that one badly to get our season headed back in the right direction, and the Vols delivered bigtime. It was just one more example of Pearl and the Vols getting it done against Florida...and now, we need it again.
The sky isn't falling, but perhaps we are seeing it more clearly now after back-to-back losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt. Tennessee's talent and depth without Tyler Smith and Brian Williams is what it is, and the SEC will be a challenge every night...but that same talent was enough to beat Charlotte, Kansas, Auburn, Ole Miss and Alabama. The Vols probably won't go 11-0 down the stretch, but there's still plenty of reason to believe this team can do more than just squeak into the tournament on a sympathy vote (which probably won't really exist).
More bumps in the road may come, but the Vols need to avoid one on Sunday. For motivation, for holding serve at home against a tough schedule, and for continued growth, this is a game that Tennessee needs to win more than any other they've seen so far this year. To do that, the Vols will need some or all of the following:
A Balanced Defensive Effort
The Gators have five players that average double figures:
- G Kenny Boynton 15.0
- G Erving Walker 13.3
- F Alex Tyus 12.5
- F Chandler Parsons 10.6
- C Vernon Macklin 10.0
Florida doesn't get a ton of production beyond those five - our old friend Dan Werner is still around, but averages only 5.6 points per game. It's too bad Tyler Smith won't be here to fight him.
Boynton leads the way - he takes almost 14 shots per game as a freshman - and as such is capable of putting up big numbers. Walker is the team's best three point shooter (39.7%), unless it's the final second of the game, in which case it's Chandler Parsons. But as a team, they shoot only 31.9% from beyond the arc. Boynton is 6'2" and Walker is 5'8" - Tennessee can be physical with these guys, but will also be challenged to stay in front of them.
Meanwhile, it's Tyus who might be the team's most complete player - at 6'9", who guards him? Tyler Smith was around to really frustrate him last time around, but who will step up this year? Which team will win the battle of...
Points in the Paint
In the two meetings between Tennessee and Florida last year, Tyler Smith had 35 points and Wayne Chism 30. By contrast, Alex Tyus was held to 5 of 14 shooting, and the Gators had no answer (to be fair, a significant percentage of their offense last year ran through Nick Calathes). Can Chism and Kenny Hall be the dominant post presence the Vols need on Sunday?
The status of Wayne's knee continues to be uncertain, though again it won't keep him from playing. Kenny Hall continues to remind me of a player that we're going to love in the future...we like him fine right now, but we haven't seen him really bust loose with a huge game yet. But with no information on the return of Brian Williams, and Renaldo Woolridge continuing to struggle (and unable to be a threat in the post), we need more of Hall's greatness to be in the present instead of the future.
Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin has potential, but is yet to pickup a double-digit rebounding game for the Gators, and hasn't put up great numbers against great teams. I think Tennessee will have every opportunity to win the battle in the paint with Chism and Hall on Sunday.
UT Bench Points
We've seen by now that the Vols can get good play from Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, J.P. Prince, and Wayne Chism. We think Kenny Hall is close to joining that group. What will the Vols get from everyone else?
Renaldo Woolridge has been a non-factor since SEC play began. Cameron Tatum - who early in the season was stealing minutes from Prince - has still appeared rusty, though one wonders if he'll start getting more minutes. The overwhelming thought is that Melvin Goins will take Josh Bone's place in the rotation after Bone has struggled three games in a row, but what will he bring back to the table?
Tennessee still has good players, but without contributions from the bench, they will not be a good team. The Vols beat Kansas because they got 23 points from Woolridge, McBee, and Bone. In losses to Georgia and Vandy, that trio has combined for 9 total points, all from McBee. Tennessee needs more from the entire team.
How good is Florida?
Of the Gators' five losses, three are to Syracuse, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. The other two are to Richmond and South Alabama, and the Gators are two miracle threes from Parsons away from being 13-7, with losses to NC State and South Carolina. They've won four straight, but three of those are against LSU, Arkansas, and Georgia, and the other is the Carolina win at the buzzer.
I think the SEC has five good teams at the top, and Florida is the first mystery after that. The Gators can still easily make the NCAA Tournament with a solid finish in the SEC, and they're already off to a 4-2 start. But right now, they're still not considered to be among the conference's elite.
If that's the case, the Vols need to take care of business on Sunday. And if not, it'll be Tennessee who's in the conversation about simply making the tournament at 3-3 with a tough schedule left. The Vols may not win them all from here...but they could really use this one. Bruce Pearl owns the Gators...and I'm not ready to let that one go just yet. He's always had Tennessee at their very best against these guys...if this team still has room to grow, there's no better time to take a step in the right direction.
CBS on Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM EST.