ATLANTA - South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin looked down at the stat sheet that showed his ground-down Gamecocks losing 59-44 to Tennessee on Friday afternoon, then looked ahead to the Volunteers' Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal showdown today with No. 1 Florida.
"Heck of a matchup," Martin said. "Interesting to watch. If Tennessee's guards can handle Florida's pressure, their inside play can create a problem for Florida."
Judging by Friday's performance against a South Carolina team playing its third game in 44 hours, that could be a big "if" for Tennessee, now 21-11 for the season. The Vols turned it over 12 times in all, but 10 of those came from their guard trio of Antonio Barton (4), Jordan McRae (4) and freshman reserve Darius Thompson (2).
Given that Missouri's more celebrated guard trio of Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross coughed it up eight times against the Gators in a 72-49 defeat earlier in the afternoon -- Clarkson responsible for six of those -- the Vols would seem to need a far better performance out of their backcourt, though their assist-to-turnover ratio was the second best in the league during the regular season.
"When I took over this program, this is what I envisioned defensively," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said after the Vols held the Gamecocks to 27 percent field-goal shooting, including 25 percent from the 3-point line. "I just thought we did a real good job of playing with energy. The last five games, we're playing well."
South Carolina's Martin believes the Vols are playing better than well.
"I told my assistants last night that I think they're playing better than anyone in our league right now, and I think Florida is real good," he said at the close of his second season at South Carolina, his Gamecocks winning six of their final 11 games to finish 14-20.
"If you had said to me, 'Which team would you rather not play in the tournament?' I would have said Tennessee. Not taking anything away from Florida, Kentucky or anybody else, but their perimeter size really, really bothers us."
It certainly bothered SC's Brenton Williams. Entering the game as the league's 11th best scorer (15.2 ppg), he scored only nine points in 36 minutes against the Vols, hitting just 3 of 13 shots.
"They're so long," SC's Martin continued. "They put [Jordan] McRae or [Josh] Richardson on Brent, and they're almost a foot taller than him."
The Gamecocks coach believes those same issues assist the Vols on offense, especially when McRae is lighting it up from the 3-point line.
"You pick your poison with them," he said after watching Jarnell "Double Trouble" Stokes go for 22 points and 15 rebounds inside while McRae was bagging 14 points from the outside. "You start committing to Stokes too much and the baskets suddenly count three instead of two."
There weren't enough of 3s or 2s during the Vols' first two meetings with Florida. The Gators blew apart the Vols 67-41 in Gainesville, then rallied from a one-point halftime deficit in Knoxville to win 67-58.
"Especially when we played them at home, I feel like they wanted it more," Stokes said of the Gators. "That's why they're the No. 1 team in the country. But now we have an opportunity to see how well we can play against Florida now that we're playing well."
Added UT's Martin: "We didn't come to Atlanta to just win one in the tournament. We came to win the tournament."
And they could. Friday marked the third time in the last four games that the Vols have held an opponent to 45 or fewer points. It marked the fourth straight win by double figures.
But even in victory, the assessment of South Carolina's Coach Martin regarding Florida's backcourt, especially senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, wasn't lost on UT's Coach Martin.
"We couldn't maximize at that particular position," he said of Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year. "He won that battle. I thought everywhere else we were solid [in Knoxville]. But at that position, he won."
If Wilbekin wins by a little instead of a lot this afternoon, the Big Orange might just win its way to Sunday's championship game.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com