The Florida Gators would seem to be better at men’s college basketball than the Tennessee Volunteers this year.
They have a better record overall and in conference play, and are rising — maybe peaking — at an opportune time late in the season, while the Vols are sprialing toward having no chance whatsoever at postseason play.
But Saturday’s game (2 p.m., ESPN2) between the teams is in Knoxville. And that’s been a problem for Florida rather often in recent memory.
The 2017 Florida team that went to the Elite Eight? It dodged a trip to Tennessee.
The 2014 Florida team that won 30 straight games and made the Final Four? It needed Patric Young being almost literally superhuman just to get a nine-point win in Knoxville.
The 2011 Florida team that won 13 SEC games and the SEC? It took overtime for that team to win on Rocky Top.
And those are the successes.
2019? 12-point loss. 2018? Five-point loss. 2016? 14-point loss. 2013, with a seven-man rotation of juniors and seniors? Seven-point loss. 2012, with Bradley Beal? 11-point loss. 2010? A one-point loss that broke up what would have been an eight-game winning streak.
So Florida absolutely cannot count this one won until it is completely done and dusted. Can’t look at a Tennessee roster and see holes left by the gone-to-the-pros Grant Williams, Jordan Bone, and Admiral Schofield and out-for-the-year Lamonte Turner and see holes to exploit without actually doing so. Can’t let the voodoo Rick Barnes has over Florida linger. Can’t take a point, rebound, or assist for granted.
Florida has been playing better of late, and does seem like it should have advantages over this Tennessee team. Andrew Nembhard is a far less volatile point guard than Santiago Vescovi, who coughs up more turnovers than he records assists, despite being a flashy playmaker. John Fulkerson has been a pleasant surprise for the Vols, but he’s going to have his hands full with Kerry Blackshear. Yves Pons is going to be tasked with staying in front of both Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis at times, and that will be a thankless job.
But Tennessee is long and plays methodically and has mostly defended Rocky Top well, with its only head-scratching home loss being to Texas A&M. Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James — what a name — have picked up for Jordan Bowden’s poor shooting this year. Florida’s probably going to have to get some threes to fall to open up the paint, because Fulkerson, Pons, and Olivier Nkamhoua patrol the paint quite effectively. As 15-13 teams go, Tennessee’s not a bad one, which is part of why the Vols still had some faint bubble buzz as of two weeks ago.
But now, these Vols are wounded, and dangerous, and would probably love nothing more than to send the Gators tumbling with a good, stiff punch.
It’s going to be up to the Gators to duck and dodge that effort, and counter on their own.