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Tennessee vs Florida Preview

After paying rent to Bruce Pearl eight times in nine meetings, Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators finally took back their house on February 23 last year in a 75-62 victory.  The win in Gainesville snapped a six game UT winning streak in this rivalry, dating back to 2007 when the eventual National Champion Gators routed a Tennessee team playing without the injured Chris Lofton.  Donovan is still yet to beat Tennessee in Knoxville during Pearl's tenure, though things got a little tight when last we met at Thompson-Boling:

(Not shown:  Alex Tyus missing from point blank range in the final seconds)

Florida can't beat Pearl in Knoxville, but as we're all aware, it won't be Pearl on the bench tonight.  It's game two for Tony Jones as interim head coach, as the Vols look to get the first win of SEC play and Jones' career.

After a November 9 beating at the hands of Ohio State, Florida tightened up the ship defensively.  Though the Gators suffered a pair of three point losses (57-54 at Marcus Jordan's Central Florida squad, 71-68 in OT at home against Jacksonville), Ole Miss just became the first team since the Buckeyes to score 70 on Florida in regulation.  Kansas State got only 44 against Florida in their most impresssive win, 57-44 over the then-#6 Wildcats on December 18.

Part of the reason they're so good defensively is their refusal to put the other team on the free throw line:  the Gators are third in the nation in defensive FT Rate, allowing only 23.6% of the opposition's points to come at the charity stripe.  This is a point of major importance in this game, because the Vols excel at getting to the line:  Tennessee is 15th nationally in offensive FT Rate, taking 28 free throws per game.

Tennessee shoots 68.2% at the line, which is amazing considering the following numbers:

Teams don't have a hard time figuring out who to foul against us; Williams and Maymon missed four straight late in the Arkansas game, including the front end of two one-and-ones.  In close SEC games, the Vols need all the points they can get.

Fortunately, the Vols' other contributors get the job done:  the other four starters (Golden, Hopson, Tatum, Harris) all shoot between 71-78% at the line; Trae Golden shoots 82.1%, and Skylar McBee is 9 of 10 on the year. 

Getting to the free throw line is key for Tennessee's struggling offense - while it may not start the runs Pearl's teams have made famous in Thompson-Boling, it does provide more consistency for an offense that badly needs it.  If we get hot from three again, great...but this team will be at its best when it's getting in the paint and getting to the line.

Drawing fouls is also important because Florida runs a short rotation:  only the starters and backup forward Erik Murphy average more than three points per game, and the Gators essentially rely on seven players.

The starters are all back from last year's team, and are all very capable.  Here's how the Vols matchup with Florida's main contributors:

PG:  Erving Walker vs. Melvin Goins

Walker leads the Gators in scoring (14.3 ppg), and has 9+ points in every game this season except Kent State.  Goins will have a size advantage on Walker (5'8" 171 lbs), and he'll need to press him on the perimeter:  Walker shoots 44.9% from the arc, and has taken at least six threes in each of his last five games.  Turnovers have been an issue:  Walker is just barely above even with a 1.1 assist/turnover ratio, while Goins is much more secure at 1.8.  Last year Bobby Maze owned Walker in Knoxville, forcing six turnovers and keep him in check for most of the night.  Turnovers have killed Tennessee, most recently at Arkansas, and assists are the greatest sign that the offense is getting the job done in the halfcourt.  Walker may knock down some shots, but the most important thing Goins (and Trae Golden) can do is press him defensively, and take care of the ball on the other end.

SG:  Kenny Boynton vs. Scotty Hopson

Boynton has not proven himself as a good three point shooter (29.4% last year, 28.7% this year), but he keeps jacking, averaging 6.3 attempts per contest.  Obviously, victory for Tennessee becomes a much harder task if he breaks out of his slump.  He still gets 12.6 points per night, meaning that while the Gators are balanced, their backcourt still leads the way.  As shown above, Hopson has had some success against Florida (he was the lone bright spot in the loss in Gainesville last year with 20 points, a number he also hit against Florida in Knoxville as a freshman) - the story of Tennessee's season has become more about the team's inconsistency than Hopson's personal struggles in that department; he's averaging 18.2 points in the last five games, four of which have been sub-par performances by the team as a whole.  While his disappearance would likely lead to defeat the way it did against Oakland and USC, we see now that him showing up doesn't guarantee victory.  Still, it's important for him to get off to a good start - he knows how to succeed against these guys.

SF:  Chandler Parsons vs. Cameron Tatum

It's more important for Tatum to knock down shots than anyone else on this team.  Not only is he capable of being the Vols' best shooter, but his play hasn't been the same in the last five games, one of many things about this team that could be a specific reason for the general frustration we've felt.  Tatum averaged 11.6 points and shot 35.7% from the arc in the Vols' first ten games.  In the last five, he's averaging 6.0 points (including an o-fer at Arkansas) and is shooting 14.3% from the arc.  Though Parsons is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc this year (currently at 37.1%), he's taking fewer threes, deferring more to Walker and Boynton.  He still averages 10.4 points per game, and has been a force on the glass recently, grabbing 46 rebounds in Florida's last five games.  At 6'9", he'll create problems for Tatum and especially for 6'3" Josh Bone, should the Vols elect to keep him at the 3 off the bench.  We could see Steven Pearl or Renaldo Woolridge in that spot if Bone struggles or the coaching staff decides he's not the man for this job before the game.

PF:  Alex Tyus vs. Tobias Harris

6'8" 220 senior vs. 6'8" 220 freshman.  All of Predator's numbers are down this year, and his best game against the Vols last year came while Tennessee was still running with a depleted rotation (note that Swipa is in on that final possession in the clip above).  Still, he can be a strong presence inside, and Tobias will find life more difficult going into the paint against Tyus and Vernon Macklin.  It's a shame we're not playing well, because Tobias is having an incredible year:  the only time he didn't hit double-figures, we blew out Pittsburgh.  He averages 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, and has decreased his turnovers dramatically from the early parts of the season.  He's had a better year than Tyus...if the Vols want to win and Tobias wants to be thought of as one of the best players in the SEC right now, he needs to have a better game than Tyus tonight.

C:  Vernon Macklin vs. John Fields

Fields will get the start for Brian Williams, though both should play.  Fields isn't a scorer, but he will disrupt, averaging 1.5 blocks per game to go with 3.9 rebounds off the bench.  It'll be interesting to see what he does with more minutes, and Williams hadn't been giving us any offense anyway.  His play has been another big mystery this season, and while I hope Fields plays well, I hope we get Williams figured out soon too.  The 6'10" Macklin plays the least of the Gator starters, but he's still been good for 10.9 points and 6.2 rebounds.  Whoever is in the middle for the Vols will have their work cut out for them in the paint.

Florida's bench is almost non-existent, and though the Vols play a 10 man rotation, at times ours has been too.  Ideally, you know, everybody in the starting lineup plays well...but Tennessee continues to need a spark off the bench.  Trae Golden is the most important piece, especially against Erving Walker and the Gators, and he's played well recently.  But if the Vols continue to get nothing from Skylar McBee and Josh Bone, we're going to continue to struggle.  And we love Jeronne Maymon's energy, but at this point wouldn't you foul him every time he touches it?

One additional key stat:  Florida and Tennessee are two of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation.  The Gators are 7th in offensive rebounding percentage, getting 41.6% of their misses, with the Vols 11th at 40.1%.  Both teams have already notched victories over great offensive rebounding teams (Pitt is first and Kansas State third). 

Again:  if we come alive from the arc, great.  But this is a man's game -  Florida has to prove they can win in Knoxville, and the Vols need a win for Tony Jones, and for the course of the season.  The Vols' best chance of victory will come by getting to the free throw line, and keeping Florida off the offensive glass. 

KenPom likes the Vols by one.  As we've already learned, whatever this team does, it will be interesting.

9:00 PM - ESPN