Gators ready for matchup with Pearl-less Volunteers tonight


Florida head basketball coach Billy Donovan, second from right, talks with his team during a timeout during the first half against Rhode Island on Jan. 3

Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:50 a.m.

There will be a different vibe tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena when Florida faces Tennessee.

Facts

Tonight's game

Who: Florida Gators (12-3, 1-0 SEC) at Tennessee Volunteers (10-5, 0-1 SEC)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center
TV: ESPN
Radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

Sure, ESPN will be there to televise the game between division rivals. Another referee-baiting, Creamsicle-and-white clad sellout crowd is expected.

But for the first time since 2005, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl won't be on the sidelines tonight when the Vols face the Gators. Interim coach Tony Jones will lead Tennessee instead, while Pearl serves the second of an eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension for lying to NCAA investigators.

Florida senior center Vernon Macklin said he couldn't imagine playing a game without head coach Billy Donovan on the bench.




“That's pretty tough,” Macklin said. “At this level, when you have a Bruce Pearl, a Coach Donovan on the sidelines, those guys are strong. They can really coach you up and help you out a lot.”

Pearl had led Tennessee to NCAA Tournament in all five of his previous seasons as coach, which includes two Sweet 16s and last season's Elite Eight appearance. Pearl is 8-2 in his career against Donovan, including 5-0 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Under the guidelines set by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, Pearl can still hold practices with his team and create game plans. But he can't have any contact with the Vols from two hours before to one hour past game time. Tennessee associate athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois stayed with Pearl during the Vols' 68-65 loss at Arkansas last Saturday to make sure he wasn't contacting his assistants.

What kind of difference can a coach make on the bench? Donovan said it can be minimal if you have experienced assistants.

“I don't know all the inner workings of their staff or how they're handling the situation,” Donovan said. “But I would say this, when I had John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant and guys that had been with me for long periods of time I think you all start to think alike and prepare alike.”

Jones has spent 10 years working under Pearl as an assistant at both Tennessee and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jones has said during televised interviews that he plans to stay true to his personality, which is more even-keel than the emotional, demonstrative Pearl.

“Our goal is to keep the focus on our players,” Pearl said during last week's SEC teleconference. “We're going to try to prepare the same way we do for every game. My coaching staff and I have been together for a while.

“Tony Jones, he'll do a great job staying the course. Steve Forbes will assist him. And the guys will step up just like when you are playing without someone that's injured.”

Florida (12-3, 1-0 SEC) is looking to break a five-game losing streak losing streak at Tennessee. The Gators nearly broke the hex last season, but senior Alex Tyus missed a bank shot at the buzzer in a 61-60 loss. Donovan said Pearl's absence could actually work to Tennessee's advantage.

They are probably more equipped to handle that than I would be because I don't know how they game plan or what they are trying to do with Bruce not being there on the bench,” Donovan said. “But they do have a pretty cohesive group that has been together for a while that knows the system and what Bruce wants inside and out.”

Tennessee is hopeful to have Pearl back on the court for its ninth conference game Feb. 8 at Kentucky. But the school is still awaiting word from the NCAA, which could impose additional penalties. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton docked Pearl's pay $1.5 million over five years and banned him from off-campus recruiting for a year. In addition, salary cuts and recruiting restrictions were imposed on Pearl's assistants.

According to the NCAA's findings, Pearl misled investigators about a photo taken with himself and point guard recruit Aaron Craft in 2008. Pearl broke rules by hosting Craft, now a point guard at Ohio State, at his home. Tennessee also found in an internal investigation that Pearl and his staff made excessive calls to recruits.

Tennessee played hard in its first game under Jones, nearly rallying back from a 13-point second half deficit against Arkansas. But the Vols fell short 68-65 when freshman Tobias Harris missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Tennessee's inconsistent season has included wins against No. 5 Pittsburgh and No. 7 Villanova and losses to College of Charleston, Oakland, Mich., and UNC-Charlotte. But Florida players expect the Vols to come out with the same energy then they have with Pearl on the bench.

“I would only imagine Tennessee players like Coach Pearl and him not watching, it's going to be hard,” Macklin said. “But I know they are going to come out and play hard regardless of who is coaching them.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Kenny Boynton 6-2 So. 12.6 ppg, 2.7 apg

G Erving Walker 5-8 Jr. 14.3 ppg, 3.8 apg

F Chandler Parsons 6-9 Sr. 10.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg

F Alex Tyus 6-8 Sr. 8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg

C Vernon Macklin 6-10 Sr. 10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg

KEY RESERVES

F Patric Young 6-8 Fr. 2.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg

G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Fr. 2.2 ppg, 2.4 apg

F Will Yeguete 6-7 Fr. 1.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg

TENNESSEE PROBABLE STARTERS

G Cameron Tatum 6-6 Jr. 9.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Melvin Goins 5-10 Sr. 8.9 ppg, 2.8 apg

G Scotty Hopson 6-7 Jr. 16.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg

F Tobias Harris 6-8 Fr. 15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg

C Brian Williams 6-10 Sr. 6.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg

KEY RESERVES

G Trae Golden 6-1 Fr. 4.6 ppg, 2.9 apg

F John Fields 6-9 Sr. 3.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg

G Skylar McBee 6-3 So. 3.0 ppg, 0.8 rpg

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Florida's defense

Florida coach Billy Donovan said he felt his team's defensive execution slipped in the second half of its 77-71 win over Ole Miss. The Rebels rallied back from 12-point second half deficit going 7-16 from 3-point range in the second half. "I felt we got too deep with our defense to and too consumed with the drive that we gave up too many 3-point shots in the second half," Donovan said. Even though Tennessee is shooting 33.1 percent from 3-point range, look for Florida to try to do a better job contesting shots from long range.

2. Battle on the boards

Even with the loss of center Wayne Chism, Tennessee has remained physical inside with the help of senior center Brian Williams and impact freshman Tobias Harris. The Vols are outrebounding opponents by 6.6 boards per game. Florida, with a plus-7.9 rebound margin, was outrebounded for just the second time this season against Ole Miss. With both teams projected to struggle from the perimeter, the team that crashes the offensive boards harder could have the best shot of winning. Of course, Florida has been better from the perimeter of late, shooting 46.9 percent (23-49) from 3-point range over its last three games.

3. Stopping Hopson

Junior Tennessee swingman Scotty Hopson has been a thorn in the side of the Gators throughout his career. Hopson averaged 16 ppg against the Gators last season and hit the game-winning shot to beat Florida 61-60 at Thompson Boling Arena last season. Look for Florida to throw different defensive looks to try to keep Hopson off-balance. UF freshman forward Casey Prather, in a return to his home state of Tennessee, could play an important role off the bench to defend the multi-faceted Hopson during some stretches.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Florida play better defensively after a so-so effort against Ole Miss?

2. Can the Gators keep talented Tennessee swing-man Scotty Hopson in check?

3. Will head coach Bruce Pearl's absence make a difference in how the Vols play?

Go to Gatorsports.com after the game to read Kevin Brockway's answers.

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