Tennessee's Brian Williams (33) and Bobby Maze (3) walk off the floor after losing 77-75 to Oklahoma State in a 2009 first-round NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Dayton, Ohio. (AP File Photo/Skip Peterson)
KNOXVILLE -- For Brian Williams, there are familiar foes, and then there are the Florida Gators.
"Since I've been here, that's the only team that hasn't changed," Tennessee's senior center said after practice Thursday in preparation for the Volunteers' Southeastern Conference game at Gainesville this evening.
"Since my freshman year it's the same players. They've got All-Americans and they've been playing like it. They're complete from top to bottom. One through five, at every position, they're top five in the league."
Based on Williams' assessment, it's not surprising the veteran Gators are two games ahead of UT (15-9, 5-4) and three other teams in the SEC East. But if you ask UT guard Scotty Hopson, there's an added dimension to this particular Florida team. The last three sets of Gators went 26-22 in the SEC after consecutive national titles in 2006 and '07.
"I think since I've been at Tennessee," Hopson said Friday, "the knock on Florida's always been they haven't been such a tough team. But they've shown toughness down the stretch and they've been outrebounding teams lately."
The Gators (19-5, 8-2) certainly showed toughness in gutting out an overtime win in Knoxville in the teams' first meeting in January. UT coach Bruce Pearl believes Florida has improved since then.
"They played very well here; we played very well here," Pearl said. "Offensively they've continued to have great efficiency. They're really confident with what they're doing right now on the offensive end. They feel like they can score each time down the floor."
Stopping the Gators was something UT couldn't do in January, as Florida shot 58 percent from the field in the second half and 52 percent for the game. Five Gators scored in double figures, highlighting the team's balance and ability to attack in a variety of ways.
"Their offensive game plan is probably one of the toughest to stop in the country," said Williams, who played with Florida senior forward Alex Tyus at Harmony Community Prep School in The Bronx, N.Y. "We've got our hands full [on defense]."
Hopson and freshman forward Tobias Harris, UT's top two offensive players, are still battling nagging ankle injuries. Both will play, though neither will be at 100 percent.
"It's a day-by-day process," Hopson said. "Some days it's better; some days it's a little sore. Just having to put so much pressure on it that [Kentucky] game, these last few days have been tough on it."
Harris and Hopson combined to score 21 points in the loss at Kentucky on Tuesday, nearly 10 fewer than their averages. Melvin Goins stepped up to score a team-high 16 points, but Cameron Tatum scored just three points after averaging 14 points in his previous four games.
"[I've] just got to be more engaged, get myself going a little bit," said Tatum, who scored a game-high 21 points in the previous meeting with Florida. "I just tend to let it come to me when [Hopson's] in the game. I tend to sit back sometimes, and I've just got to be more aggressive offensively and defensively."
A loss wouldn't damage UT's NCAA tournament hopes as much as its aspirations for a league or division title, but coming off consecutive losses with just three weeks left in the regular season, the Vols know it's time to start playing with more consistency and more urgency.
"We can still things we want to do, but this game means a whole lot," Williams said. "It's just like in the game, if you have a bad play, better players bounce back to the next play quicker than others.
"We've got to bounce back from game to game. I think February's just as important as March. It's winning time right now."
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Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...