As a result of last summer's mass exodus, Florida is an unusually inexperienced and wildly unpredictable team this season. The Gators can be very, very good – as they showed in beating Kentucky 81-70 and drubbing Vanderbilt 86-64. The Gators also can be very, very bad – as they showed in road losses at Arkansas (80-61), at Tennessee (104-82) and at home to Mississippi State (68-59) just last Saturday.
"They're a very, very talented team but a young team," UT coach Bruce Pearl conceded. "They play in spurts. If they play down there like they played in the first half (at Knoxville) against us, it'll be all we want."
That's for sure. In the Feb. 5 meeting at Thompson-Boling Arena, Florida sank nine of its first 10 field goal tries and grabbed the game's first six rebounds en route to a 21-8 lead barely five minutes into the game. At that time the Gators were on pace to score 160 points.
Fortunately for Tennessee, Florida cooled quite a bit and the Vols managed to take a 71-66 lead midway through the second half. Then, with 9:22 to play, Gator forward Dan Werner hammered Tennessee's J.P. Prince. An angry Prince got in Werner's face and got a technical foul but Tennessee got revenge. The Vols outscored the Gators 33-16 the rest of the way to turn a five-point lead into a 22-point romp.
Werner and Prince get another shot at one another tonight. Werner, a 6-7, 235-pound sophomore, is averaging 8.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. His fellow starters are 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Marreese Speights (13.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 60.9 shooting percentage), 6-0, 170-pound junior Walter Hodge (10.2 points, 2.8 assists), 5-11, 150-pound freshman Jai Lucas (8.9 points, 2.5 assists) and 6-6, 185-pound freshman Nick Calathes (15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists).
At 26-3 overall and 12-2 in SEC play, fourth-ranked Tennessee needs a win tonight to clinch at least a tie for the conference title. A victory might lock up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, as well.
Florida, 21-8 overall and 8-6 in conference play, is on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing at home to Mississippi State last weekend. Beating a top-five foe like Tennessee would likely earn the Gators a bid.
"We expect their best," Vol senior Chris Lofton said. "They're going to be ready. They're going to be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, and we've got to be ready to play."
With Florida battling for an NCAA bid, you might think the Gators have more motivation tonight than the Vols. That may not be the case, however.
Tennessee is one of only three SEC programs – Ole Miss and Georgia are the others – that have not won an outright league championship since the conference split for divisional play in 1991-92. In fact, the Big Orange hasn't won an outright SEC title since 1966-67. That's a situation the '08 Vols plan to rectify by beating Florida tonight and South Carolina on Sunday.
As Lofton put it: "We've got two games left and that's what we're trying to do ... make history."