Still in the hunt

The arrival of March usually finds Tennessee and Florida stalking big game – SEC championships and high seedings for the NCAA Basketball Tournament. This year, though, the Vols and Gators are just happy to be in the hunt for a division title.

Bruce Pearl and Billy Donovan couldn't afford to focus on NCAA seedings as their teams prepared for this afternoon's 2 o'clock tipoff at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville. Instead, they gave thanks that they're in the running for the SEC East title.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be playing for a championship," said Pearl, whose team is 17-10 overall, 8-5 in SEC play. "Going down to Florida to play them late in the year – with both teams vying for a championship – we've worked to try to get our program to this point. I hope we're able to step up and respond to the challenge."

His Vols did not step up to that challenge last weekend, getting their butts kicked 77-58 at Lexington.

Pearl conceded that, in a similar situation eight days earlier, "we went up to Kentucky and we got blown out.... We didn't handle that real well."

Like Pearl, Donovan is accustomed to spending March padding his NCAA Tournament resume'. But, like Pearl, Donovan is setting his sights a little lower this year. He's equally happy to be in the hunt for the division crown.

"I'm excited that we're in the mix of it," said the Gator boss, whose team carries a 21-7 overall record and an 8-5 league mark. "There's a lot of teams out there that are not even in the mix of it."

Since South Carolina lost at Vanderbilt and Kentucky fell at home to LSU on Saturday, today's UT-Florida winner will move to 9-5 in league play and pull into a first-place tie with the Gamecocks in the SEC East with just two games left.

"It's not really about the next three games. It's about this game," Donovan said. "I think it's so easy for people to want to just fast-forward and speculate about something that's a week, 10 days or two weeks from now that has no bearing on today.... I know it's an old coaching cliché – you've got to take one game at a time – but the biggest game of our season is against Tennessee on Sunday because it's our next game up."

When they weren't gushing about still being in the hunt for the division title, Donovan and Pearl were gushing about one another's programs.

"Tennessee's an outstanding team," Donovan said. "They've played an incredible schedule since the start of the season, played in a lot of different environments. We know we're playing against one of the better teams in our league and I think it's a great opportunity for our kids."

Pearl, of course, returned the favor.

"Florida has played great at home all season," he said. "Obviously, they're undefeated (15-0) at home. We understand what a challenge it's going to be."


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