Florida game's bigger

The Tennessee Vols would've gotten a big boost if they could've beaten fourth-ranked Memphis Wednesday night at FedEx Forum but they'll get an even bigger boost if they can knock off second-ranked Florida Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Here's why:

1. Florida (17-0) is unbeaten and ranked higher than Memphis.

2. The Gators are a Southeastern Conference opponent. As noted previously in this space, the Vols' impressive 9-2 record vs. non-conference foes means their NCAA Tournament hopes will hinge on their SEC mark. A 7-9 league record could get UT on the bubble but an 8-8 mark should get the Vols an invitation to The Dance. Clearly, each conference win is a precious commodity.

3. This may be Tennessee's last chance to notch a "quality win" over a ranked opponent. With Kentucky struggling, there is no one left on UT's schedule who projects to be a top-25 caliber team.

4. Winning at home creates an air of invincibility and keeps the fans coming back for more.

Vol forward Dane Bradshaw probably said it best following the loss to Memphis.

"We definitely wanted to get this win," he said, "but we realize Florida is the most important. It's a conference game, and you really want to defend the home court."

Head coach Bruce Pearl touched on the same theme even before the Memphis game was played.

"It's a great game for Tennessee basketball," he said of the Tiger tilt, "but it's not more important than any game we've got in the SEC … not a single one of them. I don't care how it sounds; that's just the truth."

Memphis is a fertile recruiting territory, which is one of the main reasons UT hopes to schedule a game there on a regular basis. Still, Pearl reeled in a top-10 signing class last November without getting a single player from Memphis and only one player (Bolivar's Wayne Chism) from West Tennessee.

"I don't know what it does for recruiting," Pearl said of playing an occasional game against the Tigers. "We're in the Southeastern Conference. They're in Conference USA."

There also is a school of thought that playing Memphis is special because it could help establish a heated in-state rivalry. Even so, Pearl dismisses the notion that playing the Tigers is any more important than playing Georgia, Ole Miss or Auburn.

"As far as recruiting and the rivalry, it's not," he said.


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