Whitley: Tennessee has blueprint in stopping Mann, Florida

David Whitley
Gator Sports
Florida's Tre Mann (1) is defended by Tennessee's Keon Johnson (45) and Jaden Springer (11) in the first half Friday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal in Nashville, Tenn.

Sometimes conference tournaments are springboards to success. Florida's trip to Nashville might be a springboard to NCAA oblivion.

The Gators will still make the 68-team field, but their performance in Nashville was not exactly momentum-building stuff.

First came the mighty struggle to put down 12th-seeded Vanderbilt. It took a tour de force performance by Tre Mann to save that day.

Then came Friday's 78-66 beatdown by Tennessee. Though "beatdown" might not be the most appropriate word.

More:Florida eliminated from SEC tourney by Tennessee, 78-66

The only player who was literally beaten down was Tennessee's John Fulkerson. Omar Payne delivered a couple of elbows that left the 6-foot-9 Fulkerson sprawled and semi-conscious on the court.

The TV replay had to make you cringe and ask, "What was Payne thinking?"

More:Omar Payne ejected from SEC Tournament quarterfinals after getting start vs. Vols

Coach Mike White: 'We lack the emotional maturity'

That's a recurring problem with these Gators. They don't regularly commit assault-and-battery, but they do have a talent for losing their heads.

"We lack the emotional maturity that you need day in and day out to be a championship level team," coach Mike White said. "And that's why we fell short again here."

The Gators lost twice in six days to Tennessee. Not that it really matters, but that means White is 0-2 against the Vols since his brother, Danny, became Tennessee's athletic director.

Florida's coach has bigger things to concern himself with right now. Like how can he erase the tape of Friday's first half so upcoming opponents can't use it to study his team.

The scouting report is really pretty simple: Stop Tre Mann and you stop the Gators.

The sophomore guard had 30 points, but 28 of them came after halftime. Tennessee put on a defensive clinic in the first half, smothering Mann as he tried to break loose on screens.

It helps that the Volunteers have a bunch of tall, versatile athletes who can ball-hawk. But the NCAA tournament is full of tall, versatile athletes.

If Mann isn't on his game, Florida's offense turns to gunk. The Gators had only seven assists, and Tyree Appleby was the only other player with more than six points.

"We just made mistake after mistake after mistake," Noah Locke said. "We weren't responding the right way. It just kept going downhill for us."

Omar Payne's elbow the wrong response

When it comes to not responding the right way, it will be hard to top what Payne did with 17:11 left in the second half.

The back story began in Sunday's loss in Knoxville. Florida's players felt Tennessee wanted to intimidate them with some rock 'em-sock 'em play.

The Gators weren't going to let that happen again.

"We told ourselves if we lose, we're not going to lose to them by bullying us again," Mann said. "So they came out aggressive, and we were aggressive right back at them."

There's aggressive, and then there's assault and battery. Payne and Fulkerson were wrestling for rebounding position, and Payne caught Fulkerson with a left forearm to the face.

It looked intentional, but you couldn't be sure. When Payne turned around to head upcourt, he whirled and threw his right elbow.

It caught Fulkerson on the side of his head. There was little doubt whether it was intentional or not.

White had not seen the replay when he was asked about it after the game. When he does see it, he will not be proud.

"I'm assuming (Payne) did something he shouldn't have done, and we'll have a conversation," White said. "We've got to do better than that. We've got to be more mature than that. We've got to show better sportsmanship."

They can't keep losing their heads when things don't go their way. That was the story of the SEC tournament, though it could have been worse.

The last thing Florida needed was to go into the NCAA tournament with a three-game losing streak. The thing is, the one-game losing streak doesn't feel much better.

"We've got to infuse some type of confidence, some type of discussion with all of us to where we can put this thing behind us," White said. "Somehow figure out how to grow up as much as possible in a short period of time."

The first-round game is seven days away.

Anyone feeling confident?

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

David Whitley