The Vols are 18-3, 7-1 in SEC play, and — for the moment — No. 1 in KenPom, the preeminent efficiency-based rankings of men’s college basketball. Solid on offense and devastating on defense, they’re probably the best team Rick Barnes has had in his stellar late-career run on Rocky Top — though, well, Barnes and Tennessee as coach and program have plenty to prove when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
But these Vols are not unbeatable, and their losses should give Florida a little hope.
First off: Losing as it did to Colorado in the season’s second game suggests that Tennessee is — or was — susceptible to the sort of egg-laying that would be a lot more valuable in today’s economy than on a basketball court. The Vols shot terribly on that day, making 10 of 37 threes and six of 26 two-pointers; only Tennessee making 24 free throws (of 30 earned) kept the Buffaloes, who forced 15 turnovers and 12 steals, from enjoying an even larger margin of victory than the 78-66 count.
The Vols have rendered that game an extreme outlier by, uh, not shooting under 30 percent from the field in any other game this year — but it happened. If it happens again, even the Vols would need a heroic defensive effort to survive it.
Their other two losses are both road defeats, at Arizona and Kentucky. And there are commonalities there: The Vols didn’t crack 30 percent from three in either game, allowed significant second chances through deficient defensive rebounding, and committed 24 fouls in both contests, sending Arizona to the line for 27 shots and Kentucky there for 25.
Toss in close calls against Maryland (22 FTs for the Terps and an 11-for-21 night at the line for Tennessee) and Ole Miss (3-for-15 distance shooting for the Vols), and there’s the rough outline of a plan: Force misses, get boards, get fouled, and see what happens.
Florida is equipped to try that route to victory. The Gators play their own stout defense, occasionally rebound well, and can get to the foul line with frequency — that, actually, may be the strength of their struggling offense, which Tennessee will surely try to shut off by bottling up Colin Castleton with some combination of lockdown defender Olivier Nkamhoua, burly Uros Plavsic, and smothering double-teams.
Florida could also try souping up its transition game by running whenever possible, as the Vols’ losses have all been higher-tempo affairs and the Gators have the athletes to produce one of their own.
But the truth is that Tennessee is simply about as good as it gets in this year of college hoops, and while there’s no single Vol who will make an All-America team, Tennessee’s seven- or eight-man rotations have so few weaknesses that hoping for an off night is one of the better tactics to take.
Florida desperately needs a win over a team like that to keep its long-shot NCAA Tournament hopes from flat-lining. I don’t envision this being the night for it.