I missed the first fifteen minutes or so, which means I missed all of the good part. The Vols took Scotty Hopson out of the starting lineup, and Hopson responded with 20 points and 4 rebounds. In the first half, he was among several Vols who knocked down shots from the outside, negating Florida's zone defense and making up for Wayne Chism's foul trouble. The Vols built a seven point lead, though the Gators would rally to tie it at 37-37 at halftime.
In the second half, Hopson was still scoring...but no one else was. The Vols managed only 25 points in the final twenty minutes, and committed 14 turnovers in the last twenty-five minutes after never giving the Gators the ball in the first fifteen. Chism sat with four fouls for most of the half, and when he played he wasn't effective after tweaking a hip injury, before eventually picking up his fifth foul. Without him at 100%, the Gators dominated Tennessee in the paint on both ends of the floor: Florida was +10 on the boards, and kept Chism's replacements on ice: Brian Williams had 4 points, Steven Pearl had a deuce, and Kenny Hall got nothing (points or rebounds). Meanwhile, the Gators used a larger lineup and it paid off: 6'9" Chandler Parsons led the way early with 19 points, Vernon Macklin had a double-double with 13-10, and then guard Erving Walker was there to finish the Vols off down the stretch, draining three straight threes to push Florida's lead to double digits and beyond.
Tennessee's inability to score in the paint and Florida's dominance on their end also led to an absurd 21-10 foul advantage for the Gators, shooting 24 free throws to the Vols' 11. Even if some of the calls were bad, Tennessee didn't do enough inside to create good opportunities to score or get to the line. Without Chism, Florida's defense completely smothered the Vols. Consider that Tennessee shot 10 of 23 from beyond the arc - well above our season average - and still lost by thirteen points.
Credit Florida: the Gators busted up Bruce Pearl's eight-of-nine streak against Billy Donovan, and picked up a huge home win that should secure their place in the NCAA Tournament, barring collapse. It'll still take a similar collapse to keep the Vols out of the dance, so panic is not warranted yet. With #2 Kentucky looming on Saturday, the following contest with Arkansas does become an important win to get.
Florida was the better team tonight, but it's the greater truth they revealed that's more problematic: without Chism, any team with size (read: Kentucky, Mississippi State, and plenty of tournament teams) can score at will in the paint, and can shut down the Vols' offense with a zone. Even hot outside shooting wasn't enough tonight, because the defense cut off all penetration without having to worry about Chism - J.P. Prince had only 3 points, Melvin Goins was 1 of 7, and Bobby Maze got the majority of his points from the outside.
Tennessee gets three full days to rest before the Cats come to Knoxville, and Wayne Chism will likely need all of them. With Chism, Tennessee is capable of defending well in the paint and creating more opportunities for themselves on offense. But when he's hurt or in foul trouble, all future opponents would be wise to simply sit back and watch a cold shooting team with few other post options struggle to score at all (note: Tobias Harris, here's your chance to step in right away next year).
Whatever damage was done on the seed line can be repaired with a win on Saturday - and the Vols will start figuring that one out right away. But in the long run, the Vols got another glimpse tonight of the importance of Chism being healthy and active...and let's hope we have him that way down the stretch, to make sure we get in, and to continue to move forward.