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Florida vs. Tennessee, Game Thread: Gators face towering challenge on Rocky Top

A short-handed Florida plays its third game in five days and second on the road in three on Wednesday. What could go wrong?

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Florida Gators will be playing their third game in five days on Wednesday night.

Thanks to a significant shoulder injury for Colin Castleton, the Gators will be without him for the third consecutive game against Tennessee.

Thanks to a lingering non-COVID illness, reserve forward C.J. Felder is not expected to play against the Vols.

And thanks to a sudden collapse revealing a medical condition that has left Keyontae Johnson without medical clearance to play basketball at Florida, the Gators will be seeing the Vols with just 10 of the allowable 13 scholarship players available.

I suppose it could be worse. Florida could be coming off a game in which it had shot just 10 percent from three, instead of the 14 percent it mustered at Ole Miss, and the Rebels could have shot 80 percent from the field in a 48-point second half, rather than their mere 74 percent clip.

The Gators could also be Georgia, ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom and sitting at 6-14 overall and 1-6 in SEC play — or the Alabama team that just gave up multiple second-half leads to give the Bulldogs their lone SEC win.

But all the elements are on hand for Florida to take a historically bad beating at the hands of the Vols — who have dominated the Gators during Mike White’s tenure — on this Wednesday night on Rocky Top.

For Florida to avoid that, the Gators probably need to be mentally tough on offense against an excellent Vols defense, at least first and foremost. Apart from Kentucky shooting the lights out against them, no one has really solved the problem of how to attack the Vols this year, with their taller players (John Fulkerson, Olivier Nkamhoua, and Josiah-Jordan James) providing fantastic rim protection and their smaller guards (Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi) playing thieving defense closer to the ground.

In the two games against teams other than Kentucky that have featured a Tennessee opponent scoring over a point per possession this year, Villanova avoided turnovers like the plague and collected offensive rebounds like emeralds while LSU shot well and paraded to the free throw line. No one else has managed that feat — neither Ole Miss, while making 11 of 22 threes, nor North Carolina, sinking 10 of 23 triples, nor Arizona, while doing a little bit of everything well.

And the Vols’ only losses this year are to five teams currently in the KenPom top 20. Florida, which plummeted about a dozen spots after its loss to Ole Miss, sits at No. 44 entering this game — and while the Gators have played at the level of a top-20 team, that hasn’t happened on both offense and defense in the same game in quite a while.

So, yeah, Tennessee should win this one tonight, and Florida even keeping it close would be a bit of an upset. That’s just how these things are, with no easy solutions or fixes available while Castleton is out; the hard solutions, like an unexpected breakout or a phenomenal performance, are possible, but unlikely.

Still: Ain’t that why they play the games?