Tennessee Vols try again to take down No. 3 Florida

Tennessee Vols try again to take down No. 3 Florida

February 11th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin shouts out to his team during their NCAA basketball game against Florida on Jan. 25, 2014, in Gainesville, Fla.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - The formula is complicated, and the first two teams to solve it got help from the teacher.

After failing miserably in its first attempt, Tennessee's basketball team gets another try.

Wisconsin and Connecticut are the only teams to haven beaten Florida this season, and the Volunteers will try to hand the third-ranked Gators their first defeat since Dec. 2 when Billy Donovan's team visits Knoxville tonight, just 17 days after it blasted Tennessee by 26 points in Gainesville.

The Vols roundly said that disaster was just a bad day against a great team, and they'll be looking to prove that's the case.

"I hope they're very eager to play," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. "I mean, they show it in practice. These guys are competitive basketball players, and again, like I told the guys, you lost to a good team. But you can't assume, because you're playing at home and under a great crowd, things will be different.

"You have to perform on the floor. This team, you have to beat 'em. This is one of those teams, they won't beat themselves."

Florida's 15-game winning streak is solid proof of that. The Gators have cruised to a 10-0 start in the Southeastern Conference and have a realistic shot at running the table. Road games at Tennessee and Ole Miss and two games against Kentucky are the possible potholes on the Gators' drive toward an 18-0 SEC season.

And based on how the rest of the season has gone, Florida has the capability of pulling it off.

Both Gators losses came early in the season, when they were without their full complement of players, and on the road by a combined seven points against teams ranked 12th and 20th at the time.

In the second game of the season, Florida jumped to a 16-4 lead at Wisconsin before the Badgers rallied and eventually took an 11-point lead in the second half. After the Gators trimmed that deficit to three, Wisconsin's Traevon Jackson hit a pull-up jumper with 9.8 seconds left to ice an 59-53 win.

At UConn 20 days later, Shabazz Napier hit a jumper from the free-throw line at the buzzer, after his initial missed jumper was tapped back out to him, to give the Huskies a 65-64 win.

Point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the key cog in Florida's balanced team, missed the Wisconsin game and hurt his ankle late in the UConn loss, and the Gators were without key contributors in forward Dorian Finney-Smith against Wisconsin and guard Kasey Hill at UConn.

If there was a common thread between the losses, it was the Badgers hitting nine 3s and UConn making 11 to Florida's combined eight, but Martin discounts those results because of whom the Gators were missing.

"At that time, they had guys out, so it wasn't like they had a full team," he said. "They did a great job performing without guys. You can't take a lot from that just because of the situation -- the guys they had to play and how they had to play."

The Gators appear to lack any glaring weaknesses, but if they are susceptible, it's probably away from Gainesville, where Florida has not lost in nearly two years. In SEC play, Florida's largest road win was an 11-point victory at Mississippi State. Arkansas lost to the Gators by two in overtime, and Alabama and Auburn played Florida to within six and seven.

"In my opinion," Martin said, "their biggest strength is probably that it looks like they don't care who gets the accolades, the glory, that sort of thing. It's just win ballgames. I think when you have a team like that with talented basketball players, you've got a chance to be very successful."

In its last two visits to Tennessee, Florida lost 64-58 last season and 67-56 two years ago.

"You're always excited for games like that," Tennessee's leading scorer Jordan McRae said after Saturday's win against South Carolina. "They're big games, and our crowd's going to be here, they're going to be into it. Everybody knows what it is. Games like that is what players live for."

And games like the Vols' rout in Gainesville are ones players don't easily forget.

Tennessee shot 26.8 percent from the field and 1-of-19 on 3s. The Vols were intimidated by Florida's full-court press and overwhelmed by the Gators' pressure defense. McRae, averaging 25 points in Tennessee's six SEC wins and 11.8 in the Vols' four league losses, scored just five points on 1-of-15 shooting.

Florida was the tougher team that day and flexed its muscle in handing Tennessee an embarrassing defeat, but the Vols are expecting to play better in the rematch.

"I think we're in for a dogfight," Vols forward Jarnell Stokes said Saturday. "Florida's a very good team. ... I think this time around will be a lot better for us."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.