Gators Face Great Hurdle in the Smokies

The Gators insist they are better prepared for the final 10 games of the season than they were a year ago. Perhaps so, but the proof will come on the court and the first evidence will be Saturday night. The Gators head up to Knoxville to face the Tennessee Vols in what may be the toughest road game of the season.

Tennessee was the consensus pre-season pick to win the SEC, but have struggled to a 3-2 SEC record and 12-7 overall. Part of that struggle has been the search for a reliable point guard, and part has been the result of playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country. The Vols have lost two in a row, falling to Memphis by two points and LSU by six, both at home in cavernous Thompson-Boling arena.

The strength of the Vols is their veteran front court of Tyler Smith (17.2/6.2), Wayne Chism (12.9/8.7) and J.P. Prince (9.8/3.6). Tennessee is not a great shooting team, making just 45 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range. The big problem Florida has to deal with is Tennessee's incredible strength on the glass. The Vols are out rebounding their opponents by almost six per game, and we all know that Florida has had some difficult games on the glass.

You can probably count on plenty of scoring in this one. Florida is averaging 79 points a game in SEC play, tops in the league. Tennessee is next at 78. Last year the Vols won both meetings between the teams, 89-86 in Gainesville and 104-82 in Knoxville. Vols Coach Bruce Pearl has beaten the Gators five times in six meetings and has brought remarkable energy to the Tennessee program in his four seasons at Rocky Top. The Vols are 89-31 on Pearl's watch and are the defending SEC Champions.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan talked about the Vols under Pearl.

"I think Bruce has brought a great deal of enthusiasm. I think he did a great job with a guy like (Chris) Lofton and JaJuan Smith and some of those guys, because I think when there's a coaching change guys can sometimes go the other way. He did a great job getting the most out of those guys. They obviously have a very exciting style of play. They go up and down (the floor). It's a unique style of play and I think something that has added value and depth and another stronger team in our league for what he's done the last four years."

Donovan said Tennessee's record is certainly misleading.

"Their schedule has been very difficult. LSU I think is clearly one of the best teams in our league. Memphis was an emotional game with them beating Memphis last year in Memphis. They've played Gonzaga twice, and they played Georgetown. They've gone on the road to play Kansas and Temple. They have some new pieces in some ways. Besides losing Lofton and Smith, (Duke) Crews is not there, Ramar Smith is not there. You bring in a very talented player in (Scotty) Hopson, and they brought in a new point guard (Bobby Maze). I think the one mainstay for them has been their front line."

In the last eight meetings between Florida and Tennessee, the average score has been 87-77. Donovan said considering the way each team likes to play, another shootout is a foregone conclusion.

"When you have two teams that go up and down the floor like these two teams do it's going to be as high scoring game. That's just the way is going to be. I think we've always played high scoring games unless either team really hasn't shot the ball well."

The 10 remaining games on the Gators' schedule can really be broken into three phases. The trip to Tennessee, followed by a rematch with South Carolina and a battle with Kentucky in Rupp Arena would be phase one. It's important that Florida get at least one of the trio to continue building their post-season resume. Getting two out of three would change the focus from getting enough wins for an NCAA bid to getting enough wins for an SEC Championship.

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