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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators invade forbidding Rocky Top

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If Florida wants a coveted double-bye in Nashville, it’ll have to do something incredibly difficult in Knoxville.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida men’s basketball team falling to Missouri at the buzzer on Wednesday helped clarify what awaits them at the 2021 SEC Tournament, and Missouri falling to LSU on Saturday put the picture entirely into focus: If Florida wins its final game of the regular season this Sunday against Tennessee, it will be the league’s No. 4 seed and enjoy a double-bye in Nashville; if it loses in Knoxville, the Gators will be the No. 5 seed.

Those sorts of stakes being what’s on the line for a trip to Thompson-Boling Arena certainly creates even more reason to be concerned for these Gators.

Florida’s recent history against Tennessee hasn’t been great: Even considering the Gators’ stomping of these Vols back in January, they’re just 1-4 in their last five meetings, and haven’t won on Rocky Top since Patric Young made his unforgettable dive for a loose ball to help seal a close win back in 2014.

Worse, the Gators haven’t been particularly good in any of those Knoxville trips. 2020’s visit featured Keyontae Johnson, Scottie Lewis, and Andrew Nembhard combining for 12 points and the Gators conceding 14 turnovers in a 63-58 rock fight that Florida had to fight back from a 32-17 halftime deficit to make even that close; in 2019, the Gators shot 36 percent from the field against a soaring Tennessee team in a 73-61 loss; 2018’s loss was a 62-57 grinder in which the Gators took seven more shots but also missed seven of their 16 free throws.

This has not been a hospitable venue for the Gators, in other words — and they’ll be visiting it this Sunday without their best player (other than Johnson), as point guard Tre Mann will be held out of the matchup with a migraine.

That will put a lot of pressure on Tyree Appleby and Tennessee native Ques Glover to handle the ball for Florida, and to rebound from a 15-turnover first half that hurt the Gators immensely against Missouri. Appleby and Glover were both quite good against the Vols in January — Appleby with 13 points, seven assists, and three steals, and Glover with 10 points — but Mann has been Florida’s most consistent performer of late, and a reliable go-to scorer late in games.

Without him, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Florida attacks the Vols’ still-rugged defense, ranked sixth nationally. If the Gators can’t get things going, they may end up relying on the very streaky Vols offense having an off day to come away with an unlikely win.