Gators Face First SEC Road Test

The last time Florida left Knoxville with a win at Thompson-Boling Arena happened when the current freshman class for the Gators was in seventh grade. Three of the five straight losses have come by double digits, and the Gators have lost the five by an average of 10.6 points. It has been a nightmare building for Florida to play in, but this year's veteran group will look to break the streak.

"That's a tough place to play," senior center Vernon Macklin said. "Chandler told me before I got here how tough it was to play there. When I got to their gym, I realized how tough it is. The fans and atmosphere there are crazy."

Thompson-Boling Arena seats 21,678 raucous Volunteer fans for every home game, and Tuesday night at 9 p.m. will be no different. Tennessee (10-5, 0-1 SEC) didn't get off to a good start in conference play as they suffered a 68-65 defeat at Arkansas Saturday.

"They've had some great wins this year like we have, and they've had some games where people think they should've won and they didn't," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "The same thing can be said about us."

The benefit of a difficult non-conference schedule is that this won't be the first major road test for Florida. In fact, they won both of their pre-conference road tests before the season started.

The first one came in a hard fought 55-51 win over Florida State in Tallahassee. The second test came on New Year's Eve when the Gators snapped Xavier's 30-game home winning streak with a 71-67 victory.

"Anytime you're on the road like this, it's always a challenge," Donovan said. "We've had a couple games like this where we go into a difficult atmosphere at Florida State and Xavier. Our guys have an understanding of what playing on the road is all about."

The Volunteers will have a difficult situation Tuesday night as head coach Bruce Pearl serves the second of his eight-game suspension. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive announced the suspension in mid-November, saying that Pearl cannot be around the team on the day of those games, but he is still allowed to run practices on non-game days.

Pearl was suspended for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators.

Sixth-year associate head coach Tony Jones will serve as the head coach while Pearl is suspended. Assistant coach Jason Shay, who has been on the staff for six years, too, has been the lead assistant in scouting Florida since he joined the coaching staff. The Volunteers are 8-2 against Florida since then.

"I don't know all the inner workings of their staff or how they're handling this," Donovan said. "When you have guys that have been with you for a long time, you start to think alike and prepare alike. This staff at Tennessee has been together for a long time. It's a difficult situation for them."

From a player's standpoint, it's a weird situation. Pearl is around the team for every day there isn't a game. He runs practices and oversees the drills they run. Pearl is still in his office and available for players to talk to.

However, when the players come into the facility on the day of a game, Pearl isn't there.

"That's pretty tough," Macklin said. "At this level, head coaches like Coach Donovan and Coach Pearl are very strong. When you look at the sideline and see those guys coaching you up, it helps a lot. I can only imagine a Tennessee player looking to the sideline and not seeing their head coach there."

One aspect that has given Florida issues in the past five years is Tennessee's athleticism. This year is no different. Guard Scotty Hopson averages 16.3 points to lead the team, but when he gets tired, the Volunteers continue to run athletic players off their bench.

"They're very long, very athletic, and very deep," Donovan said. "They play a lot of people. They're probably the deepest team we've played against. They come off the bench with a lot of speed. They can overwhelm you with athleticism, size and length."

Freshman power forward Tobias Harris has given the Volunteers a scoring presence on the low post. He is averaging 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. He was one of the most highly recruited players coming out of high school, and the freshman has lived up to his reputation this season.

"He was as good as any forward in America, maybe the best forward in America last year," Donovan said. "He is having a terrific freshman year for them."

Tennessee's length presents issues on the defensive end of the court. It makes dribble penetration tougher, and once the Gators drop the ball off to the low post, the length makes it tougher to pass outside.

"We know their defense is one of the best in the country," freshman center Patric Young said. "They trap the big men when they get the ball in the post, so I should be prepared for that."

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