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Rick Barnes Gets His First Big Win in Knoxville

In an SEC that looks more wide open by the minute, the Vols bounced back in a big way against Florida.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Any win of any size would have been a big one for Tennessee over Florida.  The Vols won all the games they should have won in the non-conference, but their highest marks came from competitive losses at Butler, Gonzaga, and against George Washington.  But when Tennessee opened SEC play with an ice cold loss at Auburn, that narrative looked a little shaky coming into a tough two game homestand.

Instead, against Florida the Vols may have written a few lines in a new narrative.  Tennessee went small and attacked a great defense with incredible success. Kevin Punter has done his thing long enough for us to believe it's really his thing now, getting 26 points against a great Gator defense.  But the Vols have to have more than him to win, and against Florida so much more was on display.  Admiral Schofield clearly has the confidence of this coaching staff, and rewarded them with a 17-8 in 31 minutes.  As his minutes increase it can bring some additional balance to the rest of the roster.

Meanwhile, Armani Moore scored just a single point for the second game in a row.  Tennessee had a 30 point lead on Florida and its second best player didn't make a shot.  But what Moore did do was certainly meaningful:  seven rebounds, six assists, four steals, and three blocks.  The Vols didn't start anyone taller than 6'5" yet held Florida's Dorian Finney-Smith and John Egbunu to 8 of 23 from the floor.

The SEC's scheduling policy gave the Vols the annual home-and-home with Kentucky again, but sadly the days of getting two with the Gators appear to be gone for good.  But with so many great memories of big Tennessee wins over Florida, tonight Rick Barnes added his name to that list and picked up his first signature win in Knoxville.  Any win would have been big.  But this one not only got the Vols their first big win and first SEC win, it raised this team's ceiling a few feet.  The questions coming in were what the Vols could do against a great defense with plenty of size.  The answers were to put their best players on the floor and dance with what brought them, bringing even better defense themselves and using a team effort on both ends of the floor to take it to the Gators all night long.

I don't know how good Florida will be in this league because I don't know how good anyone will be in this league.  We've played five days of SEC Basketball and already six teams are 1-1.  That includes the Gators and Vols, as well as Kentucky who was rocked by LSU with Ben Simmons in foul trouble.  The Tigers are 128th in RPI and are the only 2-0 team in the conference, and got there by beating the presumptive favorites.  Vanderbilt is 0-2.  Mississippi State is tied with #21 Texas A&M as I type, who comes to Knoxville next.  The sample size is small, but it is all dogfight.

I don't know how many of those fights Tennessee will win, but if they play this way they will be in most of them.  And this win was hope the Vols can continue to make real progress as the season goes along.  It was big for Rick Barnes to get that first one, but can be really big for this team if it can spark them to something more.

It's always fun to beat Florida.