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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators face greatest test and opportunity

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There will not be a bigger game for the Gators on the hardwood this year.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators welcome the No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers to the O’Connell Center this Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN) as a team in search of a signature win.

Tennessee could provide that.

But the Gators will need to overcome their toughest test all year to get it.

The Vols are No. 3 for a variety of reasons, but it mostly boils down to a 13-1 record marred only by a neutral-site loss to Kansas back in November. They have taken down Gonzaga and Louisville, and started their SEC schedule 2-0 with thumpings of Georgia and Missouri.

And once more, it is forwards Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield who are leading Rick Barnes’s team to greatness.

Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, is even better as a junior than he was as a sophomore and freshman, having improved as a shooter, defender, and playmaker. Last year, making just under half of his two-pointers didn’t make him inefficient; this year, he’s connecting on 60 percent of those shots.

And Schofield has turned into even more of a versatile tweener as a senior. He’s capable of getting inside and doing damage or protecting the rim, but he’s gone from a very good three-point shooter to an excellent one, improving his three-point percentage from about 40 percent to nearly 47 percent.

The Vols have steady point guard Jordan Bone and the nearly automatic Kyle Alexander — who is making a staggering 71 percent of his shots inside — as well, and have the ability to defend nearly any team thanks to Bone being a tall guard and Schofield and Williams being eminently switchable.

There is really no obvious weakness with this team, other than perhaps their generally mediocre three-point shooting — and even that is mostly just a matter of Bone taking too many threes that should be shots for other players, something that is hardly a fatal flaw.

For Florida, which seems to have a roster full of players with individual fatal flaws that collectively develops more, that’s obviously a worrisome challenge to face.

But the Gators are playing at home, where they have been generally feisty, even though they collapsed late against South Carolina and never quite held an advantage over Michigan State. And Florida just got one of the better games of KeVaughn Allen’s senior season at Arkansas, and has been getting more from Jalen Hudson of late, and can rely on its talented freshman class and the thankless and relentless effort of Kevarrius Hayes ... and if you squint, that can look like enough to surprise even a team as good as Tennessee.

We shall see if that comes into focus for the Gators on this evening. The faith in that coming to pass is low, even among the faithful.

But, oh, what a wonderful surprise — and win — this could be.