Game may turn into shootout in Knoxville
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Patterns haven't developed yet this Southeastern Conference season, but a few things are clear.
Florida can score points in bunches. So can Tennessee.
That's what makes the matchup between the two schools Saturday in Knoxville intriguing. First-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has revitalized the Vols with a running, pressing style he brought from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Florida has been able to run and press more with its current crop of players.
The result - Florida leads the SEC in scoring at 84.2 points per game, followed by Tennessee at 83.5 per game.
"It's early, but it looks as though Tennessee is a very good offensive team," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I've always felt like they've had talent. Major Wingate and Andre Patterson are improved offensive players. They are a team that likes to play in transition, like us. Both teams are going to get up and down the floor and do what they like to do."
Tennessee's 11-3 start under Pearl has created some buzz. The game at 24,000-seat Thompson-Boling arena is already a sellout. Tennessee drew 21,000 for its home SEC opener against Georgia.
An early upset at Texas sparked some momentum and got Tennessee players to buy into what Pearl was selling. Pearl's high energy style has rubbed off on teammates and fans.
"He's one of the first guys in the office and one of the last guys to leave," Tennessee associate coach Tony Jones said. "He has a lot of enthusiasm and he has a sincere passion to win. And he loves his players and his players play for him."
In essence, Florida and Tennessee mirror each other in style of play. In addition to scoring, Florida and Tennessee rank 1-2 in 3-point field goal percentage (41.1 percent to 40.4 percent) and assists (19.65 to 17.86). Tennessee ranks first in the SEC in steals (11.14), followed by Florida (9.65).
If there's a difference defensively, it's in the frequency of the press. Tennessee has pressed full-boar this season, in order to create a frenetic pace. Florida has pressed more sporadically, usually early in games and early in the second half.
Both Pearl and Donovan trace roots back to Tom Davis, who instituted a running, pressing style while coaching at Boston College in the early 1980s.
"Billy is a disciple of Rick Pitino, and Rick learned a little bit from Tom Davis," Jones said. "So their pressure is a little like ours, only they don't choose to use it as much. If they press us, obviously, we'll be familiar with it because we see it every day in practice. But we may also look to slow it down and play halfcourt ball and try to get their big guys in foul trouble."
No doubting Thomas
Much of the attention surrounding LSU this season centered around sophomore center Glen Davis and incoming freshman Tasmin Mitchell.
The surprise has been the play of forward Tyrus Thomas, who earned SEC freshman of the week honors last Monday for the second straight week. Thomas leads the SEC in rebounding (10.1 per game) and blocked shots (3.4 per game), to go with a 14.1-point per game scoring average.
Thomas' chance of making an impact seemed remote a season ago when -- at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds - he was forced to redshirt due to a preseason neck injury.
Two things happened. Thomas physically developed, growing two inches and gaining 30 pounds of muscle. Opportunity then knocked when Brandon Bass left for the NBA last spring after his sophomore year.
The 6-9 Thomas has developed into a feared shot-blocker.
"He's got great timing," LSU coach John Brady said. "Sometimes he needs to be more disciplined because if you flash your eyelids he's going to get up off the floor. But it gives your perimeter defense a lot of confidence when you have a guy back there in the lane that can block it at any time."
Arkansas coach Stan Heath came into this season with aspirations of an NCAA tournament berth. But it's been a struggle early this conference season for a Razorbacks team that is inventing new and more heart-breaking ways to lose.
On Wednesday night, the Razorbacks led by as many as 13 points in the second half and appeared headed for a big road win at injury-depleted Alabama. But the Tide showed some resolve, winning in overtime after Ronald Steele tied the score with three free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining. Steele was fouled by Arkansas point guard Dontell Jefferson, who had missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have sealed the game 10 seconds earlier.
Afterward, Heath lamented the disparity of free throws. Alabama went to the line 33 times, making 22. Arkansas went to the line just 9 times, making 5.
"Hard to win on the road when it's 33-to-9 at the line," Heath said. "Hard to win when you think you do a good job on defense and they end up with three free throws."
Heath later tempered his remarks, explaining if he said what he felt he would likely get fined. But before cutting his postgame media session short, Heath vented more frustration. "I feel for our guys," he said. "I know they are disappointed. They did the things necessary on the road, showed a lot of heart, a lot of character. It stings you. It sucks, to be flat-out honest with you. You just want things to be fair. As much as there was interior play with Alabama, there was interior play with Arkansas."
LSU (11-1, 3-0 SEC), tough non-conference schedule has helped prepare Tigers for league play ... Alabama (10-6, 3-1 SEC), maybe Mark Gottfried is a better coach than we thought.
Vanderbilt (11-4, 2-2 SEC), home loss to South Carolina kills momentum built from early upset at Kentucky ... Mississippi State (11-6, 1-3 SEC), held to just 57 points in home loss to LSU.
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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