When Florida invades Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night, the rivalry game which the Gators have dominated recently for four straight wins will have an aura of veteran coaching clashing with new-age SEC blood on the Florida bench.
Rick Barnes is new to the SEC too, but he's been in this spotlight before in his 17 seasons at Texas. But gone from Gainesville is Billy Donovan, the two-time national champion who ushered Florida into a dominant era of winning that culminated in him leaving to take the head coaching job for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In his place is Michael White, the formidable former Lousiana Tech head coach who turned down the Tennessee job in 2013 before it was given to Donnie Tyndall.
"I've never coached against Mike [White], and I've been really impressed with him," Barnes said. "I watch his team. I'm impressed. I'm really impressed with him as a person and as a coach. Maybe I'm just older now. Those things don't factor into my thoughts at all."
The first-year Vols coach isn't so much concerned with White as he is with his team, who has jumped out to a 9-4 start by playing outstanding defense, controlling the ball and limiting all mistakes. Florida leads the SEC in fewest turnovers per game with 10.5 and rank No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense statistic.
"One thing we've tried to tell our team is if you're a good defensive team, you know you're going to be in games all the time if you're good. That's something that travels. Defense will travel," Barnes said.
"When you look at Florida, they defend well. They take care of the ball, which always tells you that you better not turn it over, because they're not going to give it back to you very much."
On the Vols' end of the floor, defense has been a major work-in-progress for a team still tinkering with its lineup and playing a nucleus of freshmen. Tennessee struggled in transition in an 83-77 loss against Auburn to open SEC play and Barnes has been forced to go back to the film room to work on the defensive inefficiency that has plagued his team so far this season.
"Transition defense is a big thing — the scouting report, coming down in transition, when we shrink the court as a team. We didn't do that as well (against Auburn)," Barnes said. "Those are the things that show up. We're not going to be perfect. I don't think basketball is a game of perfect, but the fact is, there's certain things that you have to be really good at. Getting back and getting your defense set has got to be one of them."
Florida won't be the fastest or most explosive team the Vols will face this year, but it does do a great job of working off ball screens to create opportunities for its scorers, including points leader Dorian Finney-Smith, who averages 13.2 per game. Since the Gators work extensively off ball screens, they've become adept at defending them.
"If you try to use the ball screen, they do a good job of not letting you get into the screen. If you're just going to stand around and try to do that, they're going to make life tough on you," Barnes said.
"That's not what we've tried to do all year. That's not how we feel that we play best. I think the fact that they rebound their misses at a high percentage [is a strength]. They do a good job with that, and they don't turn the ball over. What that tells me is that they're not going to beat themselves. If you're going to beat them, you're going to have to beat them."
To combat a lack of post depth and the still-developing talent of young big men like Kyle Alexander and Ray Kasongo, Barnes has toyed with the idea of inserting a smaller lineup on the floor against the Gators, especially as Robert Hubbs III continues to come off the bench as he rehabiliates from arthroscopic knee surgery.
"You know what, I've thought about that," Barnes said of a small lineup. "The one guy that's really not had a chance to start is Ray [Kasongo]. If we just could get Ray to understand a few more of our offensive concepts, because I do think he's trying defensively. I've thought about that. I keep thinking about a lot of different things, obviously. If we start something different, it would either be putting [Robert Hubbs III] out there, Ray, or go back with Kyle [Alexander]. I'm just not sure yet."
Until then, Tennessee will hope to counter Florida's staunch defense that gives up just 62 points per game by increasing point guard Kevin Punter's 22.8 points per game by getting him off the ball.
"We are trying to get him off the ball in most of our dead ball sets," Barnes said. "We're trying to do some things to get him off and get it back to him. We haven't, and maybe we should look at putting Armani [Moore] and him more out there together, because they're the two guys playing the point."
Barnes has gone back to the drawing board in hopes of correcting the mistakes he sees in transition while building up his team, which is looking to continue its seven-game undefeated streak at home this season against its rival.
"I think we're so locked in on what we're trying to do right now, and we realize that we don't have a big margin of error," Barnes said. "We're trying to think of ways to keep our guys getting better, and there's a fine line there of being brutally honest with them, yet trying to keep them confident as well."