In the 17 days since last we met, Florida hasn't stopped winning: the Gators pulled away in the second half for an 11 point win in Starkville, then just completed a 3-0 homestand which included holding Texas A&M to 36 points, erasing a three point halftime deficit to beat Missouri, and using an 11-0 run early in the second half to beat Alabama by nine. The Crimson Tide put up as good a fight as anybody in this now 15 game Florida win streak, shooting 55.0% from the floor, 54.5% from the arc, and 86.4% from the line...and they still lost in large part because they turned the ball over 16 times and allowed the Gators to shoot 62.0% from the floor, which is easier to do when you're running at an advantage off so many steals. Florida was 25 of 33 (75.7%) from two point range in that game.
Honestly, there's an argument to be made here for us having a better chance here because the Gators might be getting bored. 15 straight wins, many of which coming on the strength of far better play in the second half, all this on the heels of three straight Elite Eights so it's nothing the locals are unusually excited about just yet, and the big showdown coming up Saturday at Rupp Arena. The timing is perfect for us, and hey, I'll take it.
The new ingredient here is freshman Chris Walker, declared eligible last week but coming along slowly, playing 11 minutes combined against Missouri and Alabama and scoring four points in each game. At 6'10", I bet you're getting ready to see more than 5.5 minutes from him tonight against our front line.
That front line was pretty good in Gainesville - a 16/10 from Jarnell Stokes with an 8/7 from Jeronne Maymon - and they kept Patric Young off the glass for the most part. But everyone else was terrible, smothered by Florida's incredible defense that is without a doubt the biggest difference between this Gator team and their three predecessors. Florida leads the SEC in field goal percentage defense and is eighth nationally in points per possession allowed. Tennessee is now 4th nationally in scoring possession percentage, 19th nationally in points per possession, and the third best rebounding team in the nation. But the Gator defense definitely won round one, holding the Vols to 26.8% from the floor and an embarrassing 1 of 19 from the arc, many of them forced because no perimeter player could get a decent look.
Job one is to get Jordan McRae going, he of the 1 of 15 afternoon in the previous meeting. In league play McRae averages 25 points per game in our six wins and 11.7 in our four losses. Since being hampered with foul trouble in the loss to Texas A&M, Jarnell Stokes has really become our most consistent player in the last eight games. McRae is a big part of the difference between our okay basketball and our good basketball. And to get the great basketball it will take to beat Florida, he's got to get some help on the perimeter. Tennessee has to have somebody knock down shots on the other side of the floor; Josh Richardson is actually the best percentage three point shooter on the team at 42.3% on the year on 52 attempts (McRae shoots 39.9% on 143 attempts), but Antonio Barton has been very streaky and sits at just 33.3%, and Darius Thompson has been woeful at 19.4%. McRae and Stokes will go along way against most teams, but Florida is not most teams and the Vols need all hands on deck. Tennessee has to break Florida's press with greater regularity, and has to get (and make) better shots.
It's the last regular season chance for a signature win; the Vols may not look more impressive all year than they did against Virginia, now 10-1 in the ACC, but that was in December and UT needs something more recent on its dance card. A loss with a trip to Missouri coming on Saturday will do the Vols and Cuonzo Martin no favors. I very much believe there is still time for this season to be not just saved, but fruitful. But right now this is one the Vols really need to get. With a more optimistic weather forecast a great crowd should be on hand to see if Cuonzo and the Vols can bring out one more year of February magic, turn back another championship-caliber Florida team, and move this season forward to bigger and better things. Florida can be vulnerable on the road, but it will take a very different effort from the men in orange to get it done.
7:00 PM, ESPN. Let's see what this team can do in its most important moment.