Volunteers playing better than their record

The Gators travel to Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that boasts a 16-10 record and is 8-6 in Southeastern Conference play. Those numbers don't tell the entire story. The Volunteers have won five straight games and seven of their last nine. The Gators have won just one of their last seven trips to Knoxville, and they'll be challenged with a short bench on Tuesday night.

The recent hot streak for Tennessee hasn't been a surprise to Florida head coach Billy Donovan. Before the season started, Donovan said that he thought the Volunteers were the best team in the SEC. It hasn't gone that way, as Tennessee has also dealt with injury problems, but the Volunteers are now starting to play their best basketball.

Reigning SEC player of the week Trae Golden is averaging 12.3 points per game, including 32 points in a four-overtime win at Texas A&M last week. Big man Jarnell Stokes is averaging 12.8 points and nine rebounds to lead the Volunteers in the paint.

"They're a good team," Donovan said. "I think before the year, everyone had picked them as one of the better teams in the league. They present a lot of problems and challenges. Stokes is basically averaging a double-double. Golden coming off a hamstring injury is playing very good basketball.

"They're a very good team at home. We're going in there somewhat shorthanded. We've got to get some guys ready that haven't really played before. So, there's no question this is a great challenge for this group."

This is the first time since 1964 that the two teams won't play a home-and-home during the season, as Tuesday's matchup will be the only time the teams face each other this regular season.

The Gators will make the trip with a short bench. Despite all the injury problems Florida has experienced this season, Tuesday night will be the worst setup, with only one experienced bench player available. Freshman guard Michael Frazier (concussion) and junior forward Will Yeguete (knee) will both be out on Tuesday, but Donovan did say that both could return on Saturday when the Gators host Alabama.

It will force Donovan to be creative in how he uses his bench. He said after Saturday's game that freshmen Dillon Graham, Braxton Ogbueze and DeVon Walker all had a chance to get increased playing time, but it depends on the situation. If a Florida big man gets in foul trouble, Walker should get on the court more. If Donovan needs an extra guard, it will be either Graham or Ogbueze.

"Through foul trouble and fatigue, we're going to have to utilize those guys," Donovan said. "There will be an uncertainty and an unknown because these guys have not been in those situations to this point in the heart of games to see how they will respond. They're going to be thrust into that here in Knoxville tomorrow."

Tennessee starts a four-guard lineup, but the Gators are still going to be challenged in the paint by Stokes. When Donovan coached the US U18 national team to win gold in the 2012 FIBA Americas Championships, Stokes was the team's star big man, averaging 14 points and 5.6 rebounds.

"He was a great kid. I really enjoyed being around him," Donovan said. "I think he was a really good team guy, committed to winning. Obviously his size and his strength is a major factor with him in the way that he plays. I thought he was very effective, did a lot of different things on our team on both ends of the floor, rebounding, scoring. I can see from watching film this year he's gotten and I think continues to get better.

"I think he provides a physical challenge for everybody. He's a big, strong kid. He does a lot of good things around the basket. He's a good rebounder. Probably the best thing about him in my opinion – besides a great body – is he's got tremendous hands and that's certainly something in traffic, posting up, rebounding, playing through contact, is probably one of his greatest strengths."


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