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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators’ gauntlet comes to end on Rocky Top

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Florida concludes a nightmare fortnight in Knoxville.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

As has been the case for seemingly the past month, the Florida Gators approach another basketball game with hopes of getting a big win.

And as has been the case over the last two weeks, the chances of that are pretty slim today — Florida is seeing No. 1 Tennessee on Rocky Top (4 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN), after all.

The Volunteers scored a not-nearly-that-lopsided 78-67 win over Florida in Gainesville in mid-January, needing a questionable no-call on what looked like a Grant Williams travel that turned into an Admiral Schofield three to put away the Gators for good in the final minute and padding their lead with relatively meaningless steal-and-score plays after that.

Florida had played the Vols gamely to get to that point, leading into the second half thanks largely to a combined 34 points from KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke on 9-of-15 shooting from distance, but Jordan Bowden scoring most of his 17 points in the second half and Tennessee being able to turn to Williams down the stretch made much of the difference for the Vols on that day.

And since that day, Tennessee not only hasn’t lost but has rarely been challenged. The Vols have won five of their seven contests since by 12 or more points, and at 9-0 in conference play are running away from every SEC team not named Kentucky and LSU.

It’s part of what is likely to be a historic campaign for Tennessee, which is No. 1 in the polls and on a 17-game winning streak that features enough good wins to make the Vols a likely No. 1 seed come the NCAA Tournament in March.

But this rivalry did produce an underdog knocking off a team at vertiginous heights and on a 17-game winning streak, as Tennessee did just that to the eventual national champion Gators in 2006 thanks to a timely play from Dane Bradshaw. This Florida team isn’t as good as that Tennessee team — it will have to scrape to make the NCAA Tournament, while Tennessee got in as a No. 2 seed under Bruce Pearl that year — but it can certainly take heart in the parallel for motivation today.

Of course, Florida could also collapse at the end of a grueling two weeks of games that have featured the Gators winning an overtime shootout against Ole Miss, going toe-to-toe with rugged Kentucky, and getting run ragged by Auburn. Tennessee is not just arguably the best of those teams but the worst matchup for Florida, with Williams and Schofield alone providing matchup quandaries for a thin roster that no longer has Keith Stone to turn to as a player who can guard both wings and bigs.

If Florida is going to shock the world on this afternoon, it will almost certainly do so through sweet shooting and a Herculean defensive effort. If Florida cannot pull off both feats on Rocky Top, though, it might be easy to turn this one off early.