Vols confident vs. Gators
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has its biggest game of the season just three days after winning the longest marathon in school history, but the Volunteers don't expect fatigue to hinder them tonight against No. 8 Florida.
The Vols outlasted Texas A&M 93-85 in four overtimes Saturday for their fifth consecutive triumph, which represents their longest string of Southeastern Conference wins since they reeled off eight straight league victories in 2008.
Beating Florida (22-4, 12-2 SEC) would give the Vols (16-10, 8-6) a huge boost in their NCAA tournament hopes. A loss doesn't necessarily eliminate them from consideration for an at-large bid, but it reduces their razor-thin margin for error. They can't afford to be tired at such a critical point in their season.
“There's enough time,” said Tennessee guard Trae Golden, who played 56 minutes against Texas A&M. “It's a big game. I don't expect any fatigue at all.”
This game is big enough that Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin opted against giving the Vols a day off Sunday, though he made sure they didn't exert themselves physically.
Only the Vols who played 10 minutes or less on Saturday had a half-hour skills workout. The other players stayed off the court and instead watched film and sat in a tub to recover from the bumps and bruises they'd endured the previous day.
At least one player insisted he wasn't tired at all the day after the game.
“During the game, I was tired, but I was straight after that,” said junior guard Jordan McRae, who made that comment while wearing a grin wide enough to make it difficult to detect whether he was serious.
The fact that Tennessee is playing such an important game this late in the season would have seemed unthinkable a couple of weeks ago, when the Vols were 11-10 without a single true road victory. But the Vols have looked like a completely different team during their surge.
“The thing that I give our guys the most credit for is continuing to compete and not giving up,” Martin said. “That's a hard thing to do when you're struggling. You can have different types of emotions in the locker room - one guy's going this way, the other guy's going that way - but these guys stuck together.”
Jarnell Stokes has eight double-doubles in Tennessee's last nine games and has averaged 16.3 points and 11.8 rebounds during that stretch. Golden, selected Monday as the SEC player of the week, scored a career-high 32 points against Texas A&M and is averaging 20.8 points over his last five games. McRae scored a career-high 34 points in an 82-72 victory over LSU and followed that up with 23 points at Texas A&M.
Tennessee also is shooting 61 percent (25 of 41) from 3-point range over its last three games after going 28.6 percent (102 of 357) from beyond the arc in its first 23 contests. The Vols have averaged 87.7 points over their last three games and have exceeded 80 points in three straight regular-season SEC matchups for the first time since January 2000. In the official RPI released Monday, Tennessee was 57th, a jump of 12 spots from last week.
“They are not the same team they were in November,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “They're not the same team they were in December, and they're not the same team they were in January. They have continued to get better and they have continued to improve.”
Tennessee has other reasons to feel confident about its chances Tuesday.
The Vols swept their two meetings with Florida last season, though Florida had won four straight from the Vols before then. This marks the 20th time in the history of the series that an unranked Tennessee team has faced a ranked Florida squad, and the Vols own a 10-9 record in such situations.
Injuries to Florida forward Will Yeguette (knee) and guard Michael Frazier II (concussion) will leave the Gators with only six healthy players in their usual rotation, likely forcing Donovan to use guys who normally don't play much.
“We've got to come out ready for sure,” Florida center Patric Young said. “We can't come out flat. They'll try to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We can't let that happen.”
Florida's already a lock to make the NCAA tournament. The Vols would love to get there as well. They can take a big step in that direction by winning Tuesday.
“Of course, we feel like we're an NCAA tournament team,” Stokes said. “I feel like we've proved it. I haven't really looked at the standings or anything, but I know if we keep winning, we should be good.”