Florida's been the best team in the SEC for most of the last two years, and is the only undefeated team left in the SEC in this 2013-14 season. But if Florida's struggles against Tennessee under Billy Donovan have taught us anything, it's that it doesn't matter how good Florida is when Tennessee is involved.
Donovan is 16-18 against Tennessee, unbelievably, and it's been worse since 2004 — when four guys who helped the Gators win a couple of titles arrived in Gainesville. The Oh-Fours were 2-4 against Tennessee, and since Florida won a home game over the Vols on January 10, 2004, Tennessee's won 13 of the last 19 meetings between the teams. And that's despite a four-game winning streak for Florida that included a 3-0 record in the 2010-11 season.
How long ago was Florida's last win over Tennessee? I wasn't writing here at Alligator Army when that win happened during the 2011 SEC Tournament.
The reasons for the losses are always different: A thoroughly depleted Florida team couldn't beat the Vols in Knoxville last year; Florida was outmuscled by Jarnell Stokes in a 2012 home loss. But the losses still happen, and Tennessee's poised to hand Florida another one this Saturday.
Tennessee, after all, is the best team Florida's seen since Kansas, according to KenPom. And Florida's been winning without its fastball in its last few games; that won't work against the Vols if Stokes (one of the nation's best rebounders), Jordan McRae (who has made a jump that rivals Casey Prather's in his senior year) and Jeronne Maymon (Stokes's equally effective frontcourt partner) are on. And Josh Richardson (46.4 percent from three) is the sort of sniper that could give Florida a ton of trouble, given the Gators' shaky perimeter defense.
Plus, Florida had to deal with plane issues in Tuscaloosa after defeating Alabama on Thursday night, and didn't return to Gainesville until Friday at noon. That's not an ideal 28-hour window from wheels down to tipoff.
The good news for the Gators? Tennesse has those four big names, Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, and nearly nothing else. Early foul trouble for any member of the quintet would put Tennessee in a jam. The Gators have also been a lot better at home — where they've won 26 straight games, a school record — than on the road of late: South Carolina and Georgia were dispatched by 16 and 22 in the O'Dome earlier this month, and both of those margins are actually deceptive, as both the Gamecocks and Dawgs made up ground in garbage time against Florida's reserves.
For Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young, this game could swing their career record against Tennessee from .500 to a winning mark. Let's hope, for their sake and ours, they make it happen.