We've thrown "most important game of the season" around a couple of times already. First it was Memphis, with the team in a tailspin and Bruce Pearl about to turn things over to Tony Jones. The Vols made sure the transition happened the right way, blowing out Memphis by 20. After Tony Jones got off to a rough start with a final possession loss at Arkansas and an overtime loss to Florida, the Vanderbilt game became the season's most important: could this team win with Tony Jones and compete in the SEC? The answer was different at different points in the game, but in the end the Vols erased a 17 point deficit to win 67-64.
Most recently it was Alabama: without Scotty Hopson, the Vols had a chance to take down the SEC leader and move into first place. Much like the Vanderbilt game, the Vols got down early but battled back to send the game to overtime, before falling 65-60.
So after the Vols followed up with a 12 point loss in Lexington, we arrive at the latest edition of "most important game of the year". And this one has a combination of the elements found in the previous three: team on a losing streak, season could go one of two ways, and yet, championship implications.
It's not a must-win for NCAA Tournament purposes, but it absolutely is for SEC division and/or conference title purposes. And thanks to the dog-eat-dog reality of the SEC in 2011, a win for the Vols in Gainesville could pull them within a game of the Gators and the Tide for the conference lead. Tennessee's schedule breaks the right way for this game to become the start of a strong finish: after Gainesville, the Vols play two straight at home and will be the favorite in four of their next five (South Carolina, Georgia, at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, at South Carolina) before seeing Kentucky again to close.
But if we play the way we played against Kentucky the first time, we won't beat Florida. And if we don't, there will be no more conversations about championships and better seeding this year - at 15-10 and 5-5 in the SEC, everything about this team will scream "BUBBLE!", and we'll spend four very nervous weeks trying to make sure we're on the inside looking out.
A roller coaster season comes to its most important junction on Saturday. In a matchup that already saw overtime once this year, what can the Vols do to stop a losing streak, build momentum, and play for a championship instead of an invitation?
When last we met, the best players on both teams carried almost all of the load. It's a trend the Gators will continue to rely on, but it does not bode well for the Vols to play like this:
- Cameron Tatum (21), Scotty Hopson (20), Tobias Harris (18): 59 of 75 points
- Alex Tyus (18), Kenny Boynton (17), Chandler Parsons (16), Erving Walker (15), Vernon Macklin (11): 77 of 81 points
It was probably Scotty's best game of the year other than Pittsburgh: 20 points, including 6 of 8 at the line, 2 of 4 from the arc, and most importantly, zero turnovers. He hurt Florida in a number of ways, and the Vols will need more of the same Saturday. Tatum knocked down four threes to keep the Gators honest.
But the Vol post players were completely outplayed, and since we just watched Josh Harrellson do the same thing to them, it's certainly a cause for concern. Tyus and Macklin combined for 29 in the first meeting; Brian Williams and John Fields combined for 12.
Some of those interior points came from huge defensive breakdowns: Melvin Goins (who had 2 points) struggled to keep Erving Walker in front of him, and when post defenders came over to help, Tyus and Macklin were wide open for easy buckets; Tyus shot 8 of 12.
So the Vols will definitely need to make a defensive adjustment and not allow easy buckets in the paint, and will also need to re-establish their presence on the offensive glass. Tennessee and Florida are the two best offensive rebounding teams in the SEC - last time we broke even across the board, with both teams getting 31 rebounds, 7 offensive. The first meeting was just a really well-played basketball game: the Gators shot 52.5%, the Vols 47.4%.
Obviously Tennessee needs to get that percentage down for the Gators - the biggest problem UT had in the first game was an inability to put together any sort of run. Florida is clearly capable of hurting you from every spot on the floor, and you can't make runs without getting stops.
But the Vols also self-destructed in the game's most crucial moments.
In Tennessee's two overtime losses, our offense has disappeared:
- Florida OT: 2 for 8 (first basket 0:33 left), 2 turnovers
- Alabama OT: 2 for 7, 4 turnovers
The calling card of Bruce Pearl's teams has been runs: create turnovers, score in transition, play solid defense. It's going to be hard to get consistent stops against the Gators, but the Vols have to do a better job of getting solid offensive possessions on their end. We need exactly what we got before from Tatum, Hopson, and Harris. But Melvin Goins has to step up - you can really make the case that he, not Hopson, has been our most inconsistent player. Goins had zero against Alabama, then kept us in the Kentucky game with 16. If he can prevent penetration from Walker, everything about Tennessee's defense will improve.
The Vols esssentially played Florida three-on-five last time, and took them to overtime. If the post play tightens up, the Vols re-establish their presence defensively, and Melvin Goins isn't a liability, the Vols can come out on the right side this time. I expect another really good basketball game, and just like in Knoxville, Florida is a good basketball team and there would be no shame in a close loss under normal circumstances.
But if the Vols want to compete for a title, losing is not an option. A loss of any kind sends the Vols to the bubble. A win of any kind sends the Vols back to the championship conversation.
I am sure it'll be interesting, as it always is with this bunch. Which way is our season going to go?