A confession: I have been avoiding writing our combination preview and game thread for Florida's visit to Tennessee (7 p.m., ESPN or ESPN3) all day. I have done that because I am worried.
Sure, Florida's been great all year, and especially good in SEC play. The Gators are outscoring SEC opponents by 0.23 points per trip, the best mark of any team in any major conference, and they just beat — picked apart, really — the Vols less than three weeks ago, flummoxing Jordan McRae into an ineptitude I barely thought possible. Florida won that game by 26 points, and it could have been 30, 33, 35 — the Gators led by 32 with 2:43 to go, after every starter but Casey Prather and Will Yeguete had left the game, and then Billy Donovan really called off his hounds, and Tennessee finished on a 5-0 run to get to the final score of 67-41.
And, well, while Tennessee's played well in the four games since that night, aside from a bizarre loss to a severely undermanned Vanderbilt team, there's not much to suggest Florida will have trouble locking down McRae, matching the physicality of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon inside, and making Tennessee's guards look dumb with a press that confounded them in the first meeting.
Except, of course, for the venue.
Tennessee's had some weird Smoky Mountain hex on Florida for much of the last decade — with the January win, Florida is now 7-13 against the Vols since a January 31, 2004 trip to Knoxville — but the Vols have been even better at home, beating Florida in all but one of the eight meetings in Thompson-Boling Arena since 2006. The team Florida brings has hardly mattered: The Gators were No. 1 in the country in 2006, but lost by four in a game that seared Dane Bradshaw into our collective (repressed) memories; the defending national champions would lose by 10 the next year. The 2008 trip produced a 104-82 shelling, and 2009 yielded a 79-63 thumping. Recent years have been closer, and yet more painful: A one-point loss in 2010, an 11-point loss in 2012, and a six-point loss in a game that saw six Florida players split all but 10 of the Gators' minutes last year.
Even that lone win, in 2011, was a struggle: Florida never led by more than seven points, and needed overtime to prevail.
So, yeah, don't blame me if I'm exceptionally negative or worried about the Gators tonight. I think they're as good as advertised, and have them ranked second in my power rankings for the mothership for many reasons, but Tennessee could be 8-15, not 15-8, and I would still be petrified of this game.
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