Florida coach Mike White had a feeling that Tennessee was going to be better than projected heading into the 2017-18 season.
White recalled a conversation with one of UT’s assistant coaches over last summer after noticing a preseason magazine picked the Volunteers to finish close to the bottom of the SEC standings.
“Somebody had them like 13th or 14th and I remember telling him that will be one of the things talked about in the winter as much as anything,” White said. “Because I guarantee you guys are going to be way better. He thought the same thing obviously. You saw it last year with the connectedness, the speed, quickness, the toughness.”
The Gators face a stiff, physical test when they play at No. 19 Tennessee on Wednesday night. The Vols have exceeded outside expectations, currently standing alone in second place in the rough-and-tumble SEC, and are on the brink of their first 20-win season under third-year coach Rick Barnes.
“They’re a strong, tough, physical team,” White said. “I think they have a lot of character. They really, really guard you. They’re really consistent in that category. On nights when they’re making shots, to complement that, they can beat anybody in the country. They’ve done a wonderful job. They’re obviously one of the most improved teams in the country.”
For Florida, it’s a chance to get back on track and make another statement. The Gators have no shortage of quality wins, going 4-1 against ranked teams this season, but have been stung at times playing down to their level of competition. Of UF’s six SEC losses, five have come against teams at or near the bottom of the league standings.
“We’ve got to reassess,” Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes said. “We are going to go back to look at the film, see which ways we can improve and kind of bring it together as a team. I feel like the only way we can go is up from here.”
After back-to-back losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt, Florida may welcome the underdog role.
“I’ve tried so many buttons, I might put underdog on a button and press that one,” White said. “I don’t know if that’d work. I just don’t … call me simpleminded, but I think if you block out at the free throw line like you’re supposed to and you get the rebound and they don’t hit a 3 off of it, I don’t know how much you need to motivate. Just do what you’re supposed to do.”
Tennessee boasts some bulk up front in 6-foot-5, 238 pound junior forward Admiral Schofield and 6-7, 241 pound sophomore Grant Williams, who is playing at an All-SEC level. Williams ranks ninth in the SEC in scoring (15.7 ppg) and sixth in field goal percentage (.475).
The Vols also are one of the best passing teams in the SEC, ranking second in the league in assists at 16.1 per game.
“It will be shown to our guys on film, the level of physicality and the level of edge that the game will be played at,” White said. “But again, with our group, we’ve responded positively to that and we’ve responded negatively to that. We’ve had games, Cincinnati and at South Carolina, stick out, where we look like one of those teams. And we’ve had games where we looked really, really soft. Again that’s who we’ve been. So hopefully our guys accept the challenge.”
Offensively, Florida has scored more than 70 points just once is its last six games (a 73-64 win over LSU), averaging 64.2 points per game during that stretch. The offensive slowdown has coincided with senior point guard Chris Chiozza’s recent slump. While Chiozza leads the SEC in assists at 5.9 per game, he’s scored in double figures just twice in UF’s last six games, averaging 7.5 ppg during that span.
“He’s not playing his best basketball, of course,” White said. “In his defense, I think that a factor with him is he’s got a lot of pressure on him. He’s got to play well for us to have a chance, and I think he’s got to get back to just, again, focusing on his job and focusing on that particular possession.”
Who: Florida Gators (17-10, 8-6 SEC) vs. No. 19 Tennessee Volunteers (19-7, 9-5 SEC)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.1 ppg; 2.3 apg
G Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.7 ppg;5.9 apg
G Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;14.2 ppg;6.9 rpg
F Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;8.6 ppg;4.1 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.2 ppg;5.2 rpg
TENNESSEE PROBABLE STARTERS
G Jordan Bowden;6-5;So.;10.0 ppg;3.6 rpg
G Jordan Bone;6-3;So.;6.8 ppg;3.6 apg
F Admiral Schofield;6-5;Jr.;12.2 ppg;6.1 rpg
F Grant Williams;6-7;So.;15.7 ppg;5.9 rpg
C Kyle Alexander;6-11;Jr.;5.9 ppg;5.7 rpg
Notes: Florida is 57-73 all-time against Tennessee, but has won five of the last six meetings. The Gators lost 83-69 to the Vols in their last game at Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 6, 2016. …. Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.1) while ranking third in steals (7.0 spg) and 3-pointers per game (9.0). … Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson ranks sixth in the SEC in scoring at 14.9 ppg. … Senior guard Egor Koulechov leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 90.7 percent. Koulechov is 7 for his last 11 from 3-point range and is shooting 42 percent from 3-point range on the season. … The Gators have been outrebounded in nine of 14 SEC games this season. Florida grabbed 14 offensive rebounds in its last game at Vanderbilt, but was still outrebounded 32-30. … Florida committed a season-low three turnovers in its last game, marking the 12th time this season the Gators have kept their turnover total in single digits. … Tennessee is 11-2 at home this season, with its lone home losses coming against No. 12 Auburn and No. 10 North Carolina. … Redshirt sophomore guard Lamonte Turner is averaging 10.7 ppg off the bench for the Vols.
— Kevin Brockway