Florida is off to a 3-0 start in Southeastern Conference play while Tennessee is 2-1. A win would give the Gators a two-game lead in the SEC East standings.
For Coach Billy Donovan and the second-ranked Gators to extend their school-record winning streak to 18, Florida will have to find a way to handle the unorthodox lineup that Pearl uses. The only post player the Vols use is 6-10 Major Wingate (11.9 points, 4.1 rebounds). The power forward is 6-4 Dane Bradshaw (7.6 points, 6.3 rebounds), last year's backup point guard.
"Realistically you're going against four guards," said Donovan, who admitted the winner of this game will have the advantage in making the right adjustments at the right time.
The Vols want to play an up-tempo game that begins with their press. Unlike the Gators who press and trap all over the court, the Vols try to deny the inbounds pass and then trap. If the trap is unsuccessful, they run back and play tough man to man defense in the half court. The press has worked well for Tennessee as the Vols have picked up 156 steals in their 14 games and they are averaging 83.5 points per game.
"They do a very good job of trying to prevent the ball from coming inbounds and once you get it inbounds they'll try to go with maybe one hard trap and then they'll fall back out of that," said Donovan. "The big part going against their press is really inbounding it. They show a face on a press and there it looks like they're pressing all over the ball and they do a very good job of preventing it from coming inbounds but once it comes inbounds either they'll run back in defense and maybe get one trap and run back. It's different from what we do but it's still probably the same mindset in that both teams are trying to be disruptive and take away flow."
If the press and running game don't work, the Vols play the halfcourt game by working the perimeter to take advantage of their outstanding three-point shooters. Point guard C.J. Watson and wing Chris Lofton. Watson is the leading scorer at 16.6 points per game. He's hitting 43.6 percent from three-point range. Lofton averages 15.6 per game. He is the top three-point shooter on the team with 50-112 from long range, a solid 44.6 percent. JaJuan Smith is another long range bomber who has connected on 27 three-pointers this season.
The Vols want to get teams in a fast tempo game where not a lot of time is used on the shot clock. A let it fly perimeter game where both teams are bombing away from beyond the arc helps the Vols compensate for their lack of size and once the game gets going at the faster pace, the Vols think they have an advantage with their small, quick lineup.
Donovan knows Florida has to stay within its own game plan and that means avoiding the temptation to get into a jack it up battle from the perimeter. Even though the Gators have one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation, the strength of Florida's game is to start the ball inside to the big guys and let them kick it back out to Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green on the perimeter if there's nothing open inside.
Florida does want to move the ball quickly up and down the court but Donovan likes the game to stay under control and for the Gators to stay within the game plan.
"I think it's a game that's going to go up and down," said Donovan. "We can't get lost letting it go a lot from the three-point line. In the Memphis game I think Memphis got caught in the first half early taking a lot of wide open threes."
Once Memphis broke its early habit of launching from beyond the arc, the Tigers hammered away at the inside to finish off Tennessee, 88-79. Memphis won the game once the Tigers dictated the pace of the game.
"A lot of teams aren't used to playing that fast," said Donovan. "We like to play that fast but for us, we have to make sure we're making good decisions with the ball and sometimes taking an ill-advised shot, even if it's open but it's not by the right guy at the right time, you can miss it and it leads to some great opportunities for them."
The Gators like to push the ball up the court and take advantage of big men that can run the floor. The Gators may have the game's trump card in 6-9 sophomore Corey Brewer, one of the SEC's best open court players. Brewer presents plenty of problems both on defense and on offense with his quickness and long wingspan. Brewer has few equals when it comes to playing defense on the press and now that he's grown comfortable slashing to the basket, he's become a feared offensive threat. Brewer averages 13.2 points per game, second best on the team, but he's also second on the team in assists and third on the team in rebounds. Tennessee will probably counter Brewer with Stanley Asumnu, better known as a jump shooter than a defender.
"If they go small and they try to drag our bigs away from the basket and take those guys off the dribble, our big guys have a great challenge ahead of them just trying to guard the basketball and guard their different people," said Donovan. "If their small lineup is causing our bigger lineup problems, we may have to adjust but if we're offensive rebounding the ball and getting inside our bigger lineup may force them to play with two bigger people."
HOMECOMING FOR LETHAL WEAPON 3: Lee Humphrey grew up 20 miles from the Tennessee campus in Maryville. He remains so popular in the Maryville community that Maryville High School sold tickets to the game this week so that Humphrey will have his own cheering section that will number in excess of 650.
"It's a fun game for me because I get to go home," said Humphrey, averaging 11.5 points per game and hitting 51.9 percent on three-pointers. "I'm 20 minutes from Knoxville so I'll have a lot of home town crowd. I have a lot of friends who go to UT so there will be a lot of people watching the game. I'm just excited to go and play in front of them. I'm approaching it like another game."
Humphrey was Mr. Basketball in the state of Tennessee three years ago but he wasn't recruited by the Vols even though he was a lifelong UT fan. Donovan loved the way he shot the ball from the outside so he offered a scholarship and Humphrey has no regrets.
"Growing up I was a Tennessee fan and I thought if I had a chance I would go there," he said. "It turned out that Tennessee really didn't recruit me. They went another way. The way it worked out I'm glad I'm glad I'm down at Florida because I love the school here and I love playing for Coach Donovan and my teammates."
NUMBERS CRUNCHING: This is the 108th time Florida and Tennessee have met in basketball. The Vols lead the series, 61-46, but Florida is 11-7 against the Vols in the Billy Donovan era. Since 1991, the Gators are 22-8 against Tennessee.
Donovan is now 245-112 overall in 12 years as a head coach. Now in his tenth year at Florida, Donovan is 210-92 with the Gators. Norm Sloan is Florida's all-time leader in victories with 235. It took Sloan 15 years to win that many.
Noah and Horford have combined to block 71 shots. Noah leads the Gators with 38 while Horford has 33. The two combined for 10 of Florida's 12 blocked shots Wednesday night against Savannah State.
The Gators are averaging 84.2 points per game and giving up just 61. Florida is shooting 52.4 percent as a team and holding opponents to 39.3 percent. Opponents are hitting only 34.9 percent of their three-pointers against UF.