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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators face tough test on Rocky Top

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Florida could use an easy win. It plays the SEC’s second-best team on the road instead.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators are coming off a surprising — still, somehow, this team can surprise — week in which a resounding win over South Carolina gave way to agonizing losses to Georgia and South Carolina. They could really use a painless win to get back on the right side of the ledger.

Instead, they play the SEC’s second-place team, a tough and surprising Tennessee squad, in Knoxville on this Wednesday night (9 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN).

That’s not exactly what a team that is literally doing Mikan drills to focus on layups needs.

But Tennessee, for all of the brilliance that has come with its third season under Rick Barnes, has been a little less great of late than it had been for much of the year. The Vols are 2-2 in their last four games, and the wins were two- and three-point affairs against Kentucky and South Carolina, while the losses came by 28 and 11 points to Alabama and Georgia.

Those losses did come on the road, but it’s also worrisome for Tennessee that its defense has flagged of late, giving up more than a point per possession in its last three games after keeping its previous five foes under that threshold in five wins. And defensive efficiency is crucial for the Vols, who are 1-6 when allowing more than 1.04 points per trip and 18-1 when under that mark.

Florida, for what it’s worth, is 11-4 above that threshold, and 6-6 below it. But the Gators also just managed to lose while scoring a hair under 1.2 points per possession against Vanderbilt, which is telling of a team that has a knack for winding its way to a loss.

To avoid that this evening, the Gators will probably need to make hay outside or crack a very good interior defense. Tennessee allows opponents to shoot just 33 percent from three and about 46 percent on twos, thanks to good perimeter defense captained by Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams and strong rim protection from Williams and Kyle Alexander, one of the nation’s best shot-blockers. Schofield and Williams can both bully their foes at either end of the court, and Tennessee can roll out a lineup with no player shorter than 6’3” — something that could tax a Florida roster that often plays the 6’5” Egor Koulechov at forward.

But, more importantly, Florida will need to defend well against the Vols, who often rely on Williams to drive or post and get fouled to an unhealthy degree. Williams had just five points in Tennessee’s loss to Georgia, and has posted an Offensive Rating under 100 — meaning Tennessee has scored under a point per possession with him on the court — in four of seven losses.

Williams has also had at least four fouls in six of Tennessee’s seven losses, with five fouls in four of them, so there’s a strategy for the Gators to use against these Vols if they want to try to play cynically. More likely, Florida will try to run its typical offense, and run often in transition, and we’re going to see how well that works with a hostile crowd and a very good team on the floor.

Recent returns suggest it won’t work well, and this night won’t end well for the Gators.

But we’re also overdue for a pleasant surprise from this team.