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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators face tall test in rugged Vols

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It doesn’t get easier for the undersized Gators on this night.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have run up against a problem this season: When it comes to measuring up against their toughest competition, they have quite literally come up short.

Against teams with titans — Florida State, Kentucky, even Mississippi State — the Gators have found their depleted frontcourt and generally undersized roster to be limiting issues, with those foes able to operate with impunity inside and throttle Florida drivers on the defensive end.

Those three teams were all among the top 10 nationally in Average Height, a KenPom measure of, well, height by position and playing time. (Florida ranks 106th in the measure.) And that helps explain a fair bit of Florida matching up poorly in those games.

But Average Height can be deceptive. Tennessee, Florida’s foe on this Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN), is No. 83 in Average Height — but the Vols will be a tall test in part because they play taller than that stat would indicate.

Credit Yves Pons, a 6’6” forward with the body of a center and the arms of Mr. Fantastic, for a lot of that. He blocks over 10 percent of the shots taken with him on the floor, overwhelms guards who penetrate with his size, and glues himself to bigger players who can’t match his quickness and speed.

But with John Fulkerson and Josiah-Jordan James flanking Pons as capable shot blockers in their own right and athletic guards who aren’t short harassing other teams’ backcourts, the Vols have built a stingy defense that ranks second nationally and has stood up to every stress test but Alabama’s ball movement and barrage of threes.

Paired with a very good offense, that defense has led the Vols to the national top 10 and strong positioning for a top seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. They should beat Florida — perhaps handily — on this night, especially with Scottie Lewis still out for reasons related to health and safety protocols.

The Gators managing to flip that script would do wonders in terms of proving that this team might ultimately be capable of measuring up as a Tournament-caliber squad, even if it’s currently trying to do so without its stars.

But let’s be clear: This is a tall test, no matter how tall the Vols truly are.