Bubble buddies

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Florida and Tennessee – the "Beasts of the East" in SEC basketball from 2005-2008 – will be mere bubble buddies when they collide Sunday in Gainesville.

"Obviously, it's a big ball game for both teams as we're looking to try to build our resume for the Tournament," Vol head man Bruce Pearl said, "and try to keep pace in the SEC East for a championship."

The 2008-09 Gators bear little resemblance to the program that won back-to-back national titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07. Billy Donovan's troops are 8-5 in SEC play, with one of the losses being a 79-63 beat-down at Tennessee and another coming at the hands of a Georgia team that brought an 0-10 league record and a 12-game losing streak into the fray.

Likewise, the 2008-09 Vols bear little resemblance to the program that went 77-24 overall (36-12 in league action) during Bruce Pearl's first three seasons at the helm. They're 17-10 overall, having split their last 16 games after a 9-2 start. Tennessee also stands 8-5 in league play, with two lopsided losses to Kentucky (90-72 in Knoxville, 77-58 in Lexington) and one to Ole Miss (81-65 in Oxford).

Have Pearl and Donovan suddenly lost their smart pills? Of course not. But their squads have lost their chemistry, and that's the most underrated element in team sports.

Donovan's national championship teams featured a beautiful blend of contributors. Al Horford was a brute on the backboards. Joakim Noah was Mr. Versatile at power forward, making everyone around him better. Corey Brewer was a matchup nightmare at small forward – too quick for opposing forwards and too tall for opposing guards. Lee Humphrey was a deluxe 3-point marksman and point guard Taurean Green was adept at sharing the basketball with his more heralded teammates.

Pearl's previous teams also featured a magical blend of components. Major Wingate, Wayne Chism, Duke Crews and Tyler Smith did the heavy lifting inside, while long-range bombers Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith burned opponents who packed their defenses a little too close to the basket. Point guards C.J. Watson and Ramar Smith, like the Gators' Green, contributed as set-up men and occasional scorers. Dane Bradshaw, like Florida's Noah, was a versatile glue guy who bound all of the components together.

Though still talented, the Gators aren't nearly the same since they lost Horford, Noah, Brewer, Humphrey and Green. Likewise, the Vols are still good but not nearly the team they were when Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Bradshaw were part of the equation.

Whether you choose to say they are rebuilding, reloading or retooling, Florida and Tennessee are no longer the Beasts of the East in SEC basketball. For the time being at least, they're mere bubble buddies – battling to make the NCAA Tournament and, perhaps, rekindle a few memories of past glories.


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