Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For the Florida Gators, the opportunities for a signature road victory are dwindling.
Sort of like UF’s roster at the moment.
A week removed from a second late-game disintegration this season, eighth-ranked Florida (22-4, 12-2) will venture to one of the program’s house of horrors Tuesday night when it faces the Tennessee Volunteers (16-10, 8-6) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols, winners of five straight, are the hottest team in the Southeastern Conference and have defeated the Gators five of the last six at home, and eight of the last 10.
Even the back-to-back national championship teams went 0-for-2 in the land of Rocky Top.
Those numbers don’t bother UF coach Billy Donovan as much as some others he’s been crunching the last few names -- such as the number of healthy bodies available from his eight-man rotation. With forward Will Yeguete (knee) and guard Michael Frazier (concussion) out that number is six.
That means Donovan will have no choice but to try and scratch some minutes from a trio of freshmen -- forward DeVon Walker, along withe guards Braxton Ogbueze and Dillon Graham -- who have played very little meaningful ones four months into their rookie seasons.
“They’ve got to get in early,” he said.
Just which ones get the call, and when, will play itself out, but clearly this is not an ideal scenario for a team trying to hold a two-game lead in the SEC standings at one of the toughest places to travel in the league.
But it’s what they have.
“They come in each and every day with the same attitude, focus and disposition,” junior forward Casey Prather said of his young teammates. “They want to play just as bad as we want to play, and win just as bad as we want to win.”
Of the freshmen, Walker is the graybeard in terms of experience, and he’s logged all of 37 minutes in 10 conference games, making two of eight shots and grabbing four rebounds.
Ogbueze, a point guard, has played seven less minutes and scored the same number of points. He has two assists and three turnovers. Graham has played 29 conference minutes and is 1-for-11 from the floor.
With the exception of a cameo minute or two from Walker, the court time for the these guys has been late-game duty.
“It’s really hard to evaluate the freshmen,” Donovan said. “All we can really go on is practice.”
Not exactly an ideal precursor for Thompson-Boling.
Whatever mix-and-matching of experience and inexperience the Gators choose to throw at the Vols, this team could really use a quality road win to bolster both its resume and swagger when it comes to leaving the friendly home-court confines of the O’Connell Center, where they are 13-0 this season.
Florida’s road record of 7-4 actually equates to a winning percentage of .636 that is best in the SEC; the only winning road record in the league, as a matter of fact. Of those seven victories, however, only one -- a 72-47 win at Florida State -- came against an opponent with an RPI in the nation’s Top 80.
The Seminoles check in at 79.
The Gators could not hold a seven-point lead with just over a minute left at Arizona, losing 65-64. The Wildcats are No. 11 in RPI. Next, Florida faced Kansas State at Kansas City (a game the NCAA classifies as a road date because K-State controlled all ticket sales) and lost 67-61. Those Wildcats are currently 21st in RPI.
UF cruised to seven lopsided wins to open SEC play, including at LSU (97th) and Texas A&M (86th), but then got waxed 80-69 at Arkansas (80th) and last week wilted away a 13-point lead with less than 11 minutes to go in falling 63-60 at Missouri (38th).
Now comes Tennessee and its RPI of 57. A win over the Gators (4th) could very well vault the Vols onto the good side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, whereas a Florida victory would represent the kind of solid road accomplishment the team has yet to file, with just one more road date (at Kentucky) to go.
“We’re going against a team that’s playing really well at home. They’re going to be jacked for the game, going to be hyped and excited, since we’re supposed to be the better team,” junior center Patric Young said. “They want to help themselves as far as getting to the tournament, so we have to come out ready, for sure. Can’t come out flat. They’re going to try to win the game in the first 10 minutes.”
In circumstances such as these, Donovan tells his players there’s no way to match the emotion and energy in an opponent’s building. Instead, they need to focus on the basketball details and do their jobs.
The Gators did that well enough last week in weathering the waves of intangibles the Tigers threw at them. In fact, they were great at it. The same could be said about what happened in Tucson back in December.
It was how the Gators finished those two games were so troublesome.
And now they have to take on both -- the beginning and end adrenaline rushes -- with unproven freshmen folded into the equation.
“Through foul trouble and fatigue, we're going to have to utilize those guys,” Donovan said. “There will be an uncertainty and an unknown because they have not been in those situations to this point -- in the heart of games -- to see how they will respond. They're going to be thrust into that.”
GATORS GAME BOX
No. 8 Florida at Tennessee
Tip-off: Tuesday, 9 p.m. (Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.)
Records: Florida 22-4, 12-2 (SEC); Tennessee 16-10, 8-6 (SEC)
TV: ESPN (w/Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes and Shannon Spake)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: The Gators seek a rare win against the Volunteers on the road, having won there just twice since 2003. ... Tennessee leads the all-time series against Florida 71-52. UF is 16-17 against the Vols under Coach Billy Donovan, a mark that includes two defeats last season. ... Given the SEC’s expansion, this season will mark the first since 1964 that Florida and Tennessee have not played twice. ... UF is playing its fourth straight game in ESPN’s Tuesday night lineup. ... Gators senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg) needs five points to tie Andrew Moten (1,930) for second place on Florida’s all-time scoring list. ... Boynton is one of four UF starters averaging double-figure scoring, but he is no longer the team’s leading scorer. That place belongs to senior guard Mike Rosario (13 ppg, 2.4 rpg). Senior forward Erik Murphy (12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and junior center Patric Young (10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg) are right behind them. ... The Gators will be without junior forward Will Yeguete (knee) for the sixth straight game, but also without freshman guard and 3-pointer specialist Michael Frazier III, who suffered a concussion in Saturday’s win against Arkansas. Both Yeguete and Frazier could be back in action this weekend when UF hosts Alabama. ... Rosario is averaging 15.6 points over the last eight games. ... Florida has held 19 opponents under the 60-point barrier this season, while the Gators have scored less than 60 only once. ... Tennessee is led by the three-headed monster of guards Jordan McRae (14.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Trae Golden (12.3 ppg, 4.1 apg), plus beastly power forward Jarnell Stokes (12.8 ppg, 9 rpg), who goes 6-8, 270 and is the lone post player in UT’s four-guard starting lineup. ... Tennessee, currently tied for fourth (with Missouri and Arkansas) in the SEC standings, is coming off a 93-85 quadruple-overtime win at Texas A&M when McRae, Golden and Stokes scored 45 of the team’s last 50 points. Before that, the Vols hung 82 on LSU and beat Kentucky 88-58 in handing the Wildcats the fifth-worse loss in the program’s storied history. The nearly 88-point average over the last three games is miles from where UT was early in the season when it scored just 36 in a loss at Georgetown and 38 in a loss at Virginia. ... Tennessee is not a great shooting team (43.8 percent for the season), but backup guard Skylar McBee (34.7 percent from 3-point range) gave UF fits last year from distance. ... The Vols are the SEC’s second-best rebounding team at plus-5.5.