When Florida storms Rocky Top on Tuesday night for its only showdown against Tennessee (9 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN) in the 2012-13 season, the Gators will be hard-pressed to avoid an upset. Both Billy Donovan's history against Tennessee and Florida's current predicament foretell bad things.
Tennessee has been a constant thorn in Donovan's side as Florida's coach, but never more than when the Gators are really good. Florida has been to the Elite Eight five times under Donovan; those five Florida teams are, somehow, a combined 4-7 against Tennessee, with three of those wins coming in 2011 and just one coming by double digits.
Donovan's 16-17 record against Tennessee isn't much better, especially considering how often Florida's had better talent, and the Gators have struggled this millennium in Thompson-Boling Arena, going 1-6 in their last seven tries and needing overtime to secure two of their three wins since 2000.
And then there's the matter of Florida being short-handed, with Will Yeguete still recovering from his knee surgery and Michael Frazier II recovering from a concussion suffered Saturday against Arkansas. Donovan's said Florida will pull from its three-freshman bench of DeVon Walker, Braxton Ogbueze, and Dillon Graham to supplement its six-man cast of regulars, but it remains to be seen how that will happen, and it will rely heavily on Florida being able to get a lead and keep Patric Young and Erik Murphy out of foul trouble.
Hitting a few quick threes and bursting to the lead from the tip would help, but Florida's also going to need to stop Tennessee from doing the same. The Vols have been white-hot from three in their last three games (25 of 46 have dropped, an astounding 54.3 percent), and used three early threes to rock Kentucky into submission in the Wildcats' first game without Nerlens Noel, building a 31-12 lead 10 minutes into the contest.
But that lead had just about as much to do with three as with Tennessee's hulking Jarnell Stokes, perhaps the SEC's finest offensive post player, who threw down two early dunks and helped keep the Vols in that game until its shots started falling. Stokes was quiet (four points in 11 minutes) in Tennessee's win at Florida in 2012, and didn't play in the Vols' home win — as an early-enrolling mid-year recruit, he wasn't ready for it. He hasn't been quiet at all in 2012-13, and would have nine straight double-doubles if not for foul trouble and the lopsided nature of the Kentucky game limiting him ... to nine points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes.
If Young, who will be as taxed in this game as he has been all year, can stalemate or better Stokes down low, Florida's going to have a very good chance to win this game, I think. Jordan McRae, Skyler McBee, and Trae Golden have all contributed to the phenomenal sniping in Tennessee's last three games, hitting all but two of those 25 triples, but all three have been shooting well above their season averages in those games, and none of the three teams that have conceded those threes is as good at three-point defense as Florida on a percentage basis. And the ball pressure that has worked to force turnovers from Florida's guards simply won't come from Tennessee, among the nation's laggards in defensive steal and turnover percentage.
Handling Stokes, though, is a big if. If Florida's going to stave off David tonight, it needs its Goliath to play his best ball.