UT peak too soon?

The last time Tennessee and Florida played, the Vols prevailed 80-76 in Knoxville on Jan. 21 to start an eight-game winning streak that included road victories at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Georgia.

The Big Orange finally returned to Earth last Saturday in Tuscaloosa, losing 92-79 to Alabama. Given how well the Vols played during their winning streak and how poorly they played in the loss to Bama, you wonder: Did they peak too soon?

No, says head coach Bruce Pearl.

"Obviously, the (eight-game) run was very special," he conceded. "The loss to Alabama was the first time we'd lost in a month. Regardless of the outcome (Wednesday night at Florida) I'd still like to think we'll be playing our best basketball at the end of the season. That's what we've been pointing toward."

Tennessee has encountered a legion of doubters this season. No one expected the Vols to win at No. 6 Texas on Dec. 17. No one expected them to finish pre-conference play 9-1. No one expected them to win 10 of their first 11 SEC games. Even now, with the Vols sporting a 19-4 record and a No. 10 national ranking, virtually no one expects them to finish the season on a roll. Thus, proving the doubters wrong remains a motivation.

"I don't think people expected us to do what we've done," Pearl said. "I don't think they expect us to finish it off. So why should this be any different than last month?"

The expectations for this Vol team slipped a bit following the loss to Alabama. The Tide's inside duo of Jermareo Davidson (17 points, 14 rebounds) and Richard Hendrix (16 points, 10 rebounds) shredded Tennessee's interior defense. As a result, Florida's inside duo of Al Horford and Joakim Noah must be drooling.

As Pearl noted: "Considering what Hendrix and Davidson did to us, I don't think there's any question that Florida will watch that tape and show their big kids, ‘Hey, you can score in there. Let's get it to them.' I would expect them to try."

Tennessee did a very good job containing Noah and Horford in the Jan. 21 meeting at Knoxville, limiting them to 11 points each. That's slightly below the norm for Noah, who averages 13 points per game, and on the money for Horford, who averages 11.6 ppg.

"We did a pretty good job," Pearl said.

"Pretty good" does not describe the performance of UT's interior defense against Alabama. "Pretty awful" might be more accurate. Still, Pearl is hoping the Vols can bounce back with a strong defensive effort Wednesday night.

"We're not going to change much of our game plan, but we have to change our execution," Pearl said. "The things we wanted to try to do defensively against Alabama are still the things you have to do against Florida. We just didn't do them (against Alabama)."

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