The No. 1 Tennessee Volunteers are on a program-high 17-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s contest against the Florida Gators. The two teams may be trending in opposite directions, but caution is always required when these two rivals meet. Florida (12-10, 4-5 SEC) is looking to stay in contention for a tournament birth come March. Tennessee (21-1, 9-0) is looking to extend a historic winning streak while prepping for what will be the toughest portion of their schedule yet come next Saturday.
Here is what to watch for in the sequel to the Vols’ dramatic win in Gainesville earlier this season:
Respect and Utilize The Three
One element that stuck out in last month’s match-up was Florida’s 3-point shooting, especially in the first half. KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke led the barrage and finished the game with a combined 9-of-15 from distance. No other Gator made more than one attempt. The other three makes all came from the bench.
As hot as the Gators were in the first half, the Vols were just as efficient the whole game from 21 feet and beyond. Florida exhausted its repertoire by hoisting up 32 threes. They made 12. Tennessee needed just 23 to hit 39.1 percent of its attempts.
The Gators’ only shot at keeping up with the Vols’ potent attack is volume shooting. It nearly paid off in Gainesville. Tennessee only led by two before going on a 9-0 run in the last 45 seconds.
The Vols will have their opportunities yet again thanks to the attention that Grant Williams commands. After the first meeting, Gators coach Mike White stated “If we played man-to-man for 40 minutes, Grant Williams might have had 60.”
Look for guys like Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden to take advantage of a zone or sagging defense.
Control The Paint
Tennessee’s dynamic duo of Williams and Admiral Schofield will look to wreak havoc yet again on Florida’s underwhelming front. The two combined for 11-of-16 shooting from 2-point range last month against the Gators. They also shared 17 rebounds.
Florida’s forwards were 5-of-14 from the field. They did, however, collect 18 of the team’s 23 rebounds. The putrid rebounding performance by the Gators came as no surprise. They are in the bottom-third of Division I in the rebounding department.
The Vols, on the other hand, are just inside the top-100 in rebounding. They are also eighth in 2-point percentage (58.4) and second overall in total field goal percentage (51.5). The team shot a terrific 62.5 percent from within the 3-point line down in Gainesville. Tennessee should be able to feast close to the basket in all facets of the game once again.
Foul trouble cost Schofield further domination in the last meeting. The senior notched 14 points and eight rebounds in just 25 minutes. If he gets 30 or more minutes, Schofield will have the opportunity to showcase his entire skill set and maybe even retain his jump shot.
Get Alexander Going
Speaking of controlling the paint, this could be Kyle Alexander’s last chance to corral the Gators and he will have the opportunity to do it in style. Redemption has to be on the mindset of the 6-11 forward. He produced only two points and five rebounds in 21 minutes down in Gainesville. Like Schofield, Alexander was victim of foul trouble. The Canadian hasn’t posted a double-double since he did so in back-to-back games against Georgia and Missouri, respectively. In fact, he hasn’t posted double figures in any category since.
Look for the senior to dominate in at least one, if not multiple categories. Alexander is long past due, and Florida’s weakness is its presence in the paint. There isn’t a Gator forward that can run the floor with him, either. If tempo picks up, Alexander could have a field day. Regardless, he will have ample opportunity to invest in property around the rim.
Does Florida Have a Chance?
The only way Florida keeps it close inside Thompson-Boling Arena is effective defense and a complete shooting anomaly.
The defense is there. The one thing the Gators can do is guard. They rank in the top-25 percent of the country in many defensive categories, including 50th in defensive rating and 19th in PPG.
Florida has several athletes on a guard-centric offense. They have many players, like Allen and Locke, that are capable scorers. But many, like Jalen Hudson, have under-performed. Forward Kevarrious Hayes is a blue-collar performer, but Williams, Alexander and Schofield will make life tough.
Freshman guard Andrew Nembhard is a capable scorer and passer. He has a modest 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio. The stars would have to align perfectly for the Gators to upset the No. 1 team in the nation on their home court. Nembhard would have to be one of the catalysts in that scenario, considering how much he handles the ball.
The Gators rank second in the conference in three-pointers attempted and made. However, they are just ninth in percentage, hitting at a rate of 34.1 percent. On Saturday, Florida will have to shoot above its means and well beyond its season average to avenge the Vols. The Gators were on pace to create the upset in Gainesville, but they ran out of gas when Tennessee put on more steam.
In all, Florida will have its work cut out for them on Saturday. Its best chance to get a signature win came a month ago against the Vols.
White has won 21 or more games the past six years, with three of those years serving as Florida’s coach. The Gators have to win out to hit that mark once again. With two match-ups against LSU and one versus Kentucky, it’s safe to say 21 wins is a stretch.
With a win, Tennessee could push Florida further into a tailspin and diminish its chances of playing extra games in March. Don’t expect this meeting to be as dramatic as the last. The Vols won’t need a flurry in the final minute to overcome the lot-lizards from Jortstown. The seniors will be poised to sweep a regular season series against the Gators and beat them in back-to-back meetings for the first time.