Gators Seek Crucial Win

It's not often you can find unanimity of opinion when it comes to evaluating the chances of a borderline team getting into the NCAA Tournament. However when it comes to the Florida Gators it sure seems that all analysts, nationally, regionally and locally have come to the same conclusion.

The Gators need two wins to get into the field of 65 for this year's big dance. Those wins won't come easily, but then nothing has come easily for this team since SEC play began. Florida's undersized, inexperienced Gators will take a 21-8 overall record and 8-6 SEC mark into the final week of the regular season. The Gators host Tennessee Wednesday night and travel to Lexington to face Kentucky on Sunday. Two wins and they're in. One and they likely need to post a day one win at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta. Oh-for-two and two wins in Atlanta are the minimum.

Vols Have Handled Gators

For the past two years the Florida Gators have been the best program in the nation, but they haven't done anything to impress the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols have won four of five matchups under Bruce Pearl, including a 104-82 win last month. The Gators shot out to a big early lead in that one, but Tennessee closed to within four at halftime (48-44). The Gators trailed by three points (71-68) with just over nine minutes to play but Tennessee ran away in the final minutes, outscoring Florida 33-11 the rest of the way.

Chris Lofton (26 points) and JaJuan Smith (23 points) each nailed six three-point shots while the entire Florida team made only five. Tyler Smith scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds to help the Vols to a plus-eight rebound advantage. The Gators also turned it over a season high 20 times while forcing just nine turnovers. Marreese Speights led the Gators with 23 points and nine rebounds. Dan Werner added 18 and 7 respectively while Nick Calathes had 15 and nine with eight assists.

Tennessee comes into this one ranked number four and in first place in the SEC, but they won't be complacent. Tennessee is just one game ahead of Mississippi State for the SEC title and still have not clinched the SEC East outright. The Vols are also in position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but will need a strong finish for that to happen. They have played three straight tough games, beating Memphis by four, falling to Vandy by three and edging Kentucky by three… all in a span of nine days.

The Gators have to duplicate their fine first half shooting from the first match up, sustain quality play for 40 minutes and do a much better job on the glass. If Florida can erase the minus-eight in rebounds and minus-eleven in turnovers they can post their biggest win of the season. Florida Coach Billy Donovan said the Gators know what they're up against.

"Well clearly we're playing, if not the best team, one of the best teams in the country and I think what makes them one of the best teams is they have a variety of different ways they can beat you. They can beat you in transition, they can beat you by making you turn it over, they can beat you through offensive rebounding, and certainly with (Chris) Lofton and JaJuan Smith they can beat you from behind the line. There's a lot for us to get prepared for in playing these guys. They've had a terrific year and played very well and certainly have played a great schedule."

When people talk about Tennessee the first name that always comes up is that of Lofton, the all-time three-point scorer in SEC history. But Lofton isn't the best player on this team. That honor goes to versatile sophomore forward Tyler Smith who is Tennessee's third leading scorer (13.4), but also tops the team in rebounds (6.8) and assists (103) and is second in steals (44) and blocked shots (17). Perhaps much of the country hasn't noticed just how good this guy is, but Donovan certainly has.

"I love him. He's probably more talented, but I liken him to Chuck Hayes who was at Kentucky. I think (most) people look at the points and rebounds. I thought Chuck Hayes was as good as any player I've seen since I've been here at Florida having a direct impact on winning and losing. He (Smith) really makes incredible, winning plays. Whether it's a blocked shot, whether it's an offensive rebound, whether it's a pass or whether it's through making a play at the end of a game. He's had two game-winning shots. One against Ole Miss at home earlier in the SEC schedule and made the last shot that was a key shot for them against Memphis on the road. I love watching him play because to me, he embodies everything there is about winning. He's the ultimate competitor. He's the ultimate winner."

Questions or comments? Contact's Larry Vettel

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