The No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers travel to Gainesville, Fla. to take on the Florida Gators in what will be a battle of two contrasting teams.
The Vols are winners of nine straight, while the Gators are limping into the match by narrowly avoiding what would have been their second straight conference loss and would have given them an 0-2 mark to start the SEC slate. But, they were able to come away from Fayetteville with a narrow win over the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Both coaches started their respective SEC campaigns during the 2015-16 season. Mike White has won more than 21 in each of his first three seasons in Gainesville. Rick Barnes (70-45 at Tennessee) failed to win more than 16 during the first two seasons, but is on rapid pace to catch up to White’s resume (78-42 at Florida) since being in the SEC.
Tennessee ranks atop the SEC in just about every offensive or defensive category. They are the highest scoring team in the conference as well as the most efficient. They are also the most effective defense in the SEC, boasting the lowest opponent field goal percentage. It goes without saying that Florida has its hands full.
The Gators don’t do anything exceptionally well. They are sporadic in terms of their offensive production, but they spread the wealth in terms of scoring. The one constant is their defense. They guard really well and can be feisty at times. Florida ranks third in the SEC in steals per game (8.2) and 25th in the nation in turnovers forced per game (16.6).
The Vols look set to extend their win streak to double-digits, but it might not be an air boat ride trough the swamp. Here are some keys to ensuring victory against their amphibious adversaries.
Get Grant Going
Despite an underwhelming performance from Grant Williams against Missouri, the Vols still didn’t experience a lack of production from their eclectic offense. The Vols found other ways to exploit the Tigers’ stingy-yet-predictable defense to the tune of 83 points.
There is no need for the Vols to risk an encore.
It will be tough for Florida to beat a Williams-less Tennessee squad. It’s damn near impossible if Williams plays to his standard.
Williams scored only scored four points and went 1-of-8 from the field against the Tigers. The last time the junior posted numbers even close to that was last season’s dreadful performance on the road against Georgia. He was also 1-for-8 in that game and finished with five points.
How did the forward respond?
He finished with 23 points and six rebounds at home against Florida. The Vols went on to win the rest of their remaining regular season games to claim a share of the SEC Regular Season Championship.
The Charlotte native has split his first two contests with the Gators. The two square off twice this year. The reigning SEC Player of the Year has a chance to avenge his first performance in Gainesville (6 PTS, 1 REB) in dramatic fashion.
Look for the forward to attack and facilitate against the likes of senior Kevarrius Hayes and junior Keith Stone (no, not the Keystone Light guy, but that would be epic). Neither Hayes nor Stone present any real threats, but they are solid. Hayes provides the lengthier option, while the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Stone will likely be used to match Williams’ physicality.
These formidable options still shouldn’t be a problem for Williams. The Vols’ forward is one of the nation’s best at getting to the free-throw line. If Williams posts a double-double, the Gators are in major trouble.
Defensive Field Goal Percentage
As previously mentioned, the Vols are stellar on defense. Not only do they rank first in the SEC in OPP FG%, they serve as the sixth best defense in the nation based on that statistic (37.3).
If the Vols hover around this mark on Saturday night, the bland offense of Florida effectively has no shot.
The Gators have shot 39 percent or lower in all of their losses. The caveat here is that they can still win in ugly fashion. They have somehow mustered wins against West Virginia and Arkansas (condolences to all who endured) by shooting under 40 percent as a team. Yet, if the Vols are even somewhat fluid offensively, keeping the Gators at bay shouldn’t be an issue.
Florida’s leading three-point shooter is Stone (43.8 percent), so this could be a factor. He doesn’t go to the well at an alarming rate (1/2.3 per game) but he will make you respect his ability to stretch the floor.
The Gators’ best weapon from distance is freshman guard Noah Locke. He averages 42.4 percent on six attempts per game. Respecting this aspect is key for Tennessee. Florida has four players that average over 36 percent on more than two attempts per game. Not an overwhelming statistic, but one to keep an eye on. In comparison, the Vols only have one player who fits that criteria: Admiral Schofield.
Tennessee will have to continue to force tough shots. If they do so on Saturday, it will be a long one for the Gators. The Vols are first in the SEC and 13th in the nation in defensive rebounds. Holding Florida to under 40 percent from the field should do the trick.
The Gators don’t possess any real advantage in this game. Other than hoping for an outstanding shooting night, the only type of advantage Florida has a chance at utilizing is the size of their backcourt.
White’s squad consists of three guards standing 6’5 or taller. His guard-heavy approach works well, especially when the guard play is efficient. They are stingy on defense due to this attribute. These guys are long and athletic.
Senior Jalen Hudson (6’5, 195) hasn’t lived up to the billing this year, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable. The former Virginia Tech Hokie has been known to explode for points. Hudson has scored more than 20 points 13 times in his career. He has eclipsed the 30-point mark twice: once while at Virginia Tech and once during his current tenure at Florida. He has yet to amass more than 15 points in a game this year.
The most consistent player for the Gators is a guard of the smaller variety. KeVaughn Allen, who is seemingly in his seventh year of eligibility, is the epitome of solidarity. He is not dynamic, but he feasts on teams that don’t pay attention. He is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 10.9 PPG.
Tennessee is more than capable of containing Florida’s guards despite what could be a size advantage, depending on the rotation. Expect Yves Pons to play more minutes, given his size and athleticism. There is not a guard in the country that matches his physical attributes. Jalen Johnson may even get more action in order to counter Florida’s length.
The key for this macthup is for Tennessee to play tight and force drives while on defense. Florida can become complacent on offense. As athletic as they are, the Gators rank among the worst (251st) in the nation at getting to the charity stripe. Keeping them out of rhythm and drawing them in to the Vols’ force field, i.e. Kyle Alexander, could take them out of the game completely.
It will be tough for the Gators to overcome the Vols on Saturday evening. But, Tennessee can’t rest on their laurels down in Jortstown. This over-matched Florida squad is up for the challenge. A failed upset attempt over then No. 10 Michigan State was theirs for the taking back in December.
Can they hang with another elite team on Saturday? If the Vols do these three things, there’s not a chance.