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Monday February 10, 2014History Lesson: Past Means Nothing ... Even in Knoxville

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Thompson-Boling Arena has been a house of horrors for some very good Florida basketball teams.

The best ever, actually.

The 2006 and ’07 teams that won back-to-back NCAA championships could not win there. The 2000 team that reached the national title game did not win there. Of Coach Billy Donovan’s last three teams, all of which reached the Elite Eight, only once did the Gators leave Rocky Top with smiles on their faces and that took an overtime session in 2011. That ’11 UT team reached the NCAA Tournament, while the ’12 and ’13 teams did not, but they were good enough to handle the Gators.

UF has won just one of its last eight road dates with the Volunteers and only two of the previous 10, dating to the 2003 season.

“It’s a tough place to play and they really play well there,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “But this is a game we really want to win.”

After his team defeated Alabama Saturday, Donovan spent a few minutes downplaying how the the Gators had won 15 straight, rocketed up the polls and remained the lone unbeaten team in Southeastern Conference play. He said the record merely reflected what had happened in the past and had nothing to do with how the team would play in the games ahead.

Well, if that’s the case, such thinking cuts both ways, right?

Florida’s recent run of losses at Tennessee has nothing to do with Tuesday night when the third-ranked Gators (21-2, 10-0) head back to Thompson-Boling to face the Vols (15-8, 6-4) and a team needing the kind of postseason resume boost a win over UF would provide.

Of course, if you’re Donovan, and you’re constantly out to keep your players on edge, this next game will be framed as a test of wills, what with UT out to atone for being humiliated in a 67-41 barely two weeks ago in Gainesville.

What the Volunteers learned that day was the Gators were not going to back down to their physicality, a development very much unlike the three previous meetings. UF not only took UT’s early punches, but hit back with a few of its own and before the Vols knew it they were being run out of the O’Connell Center by a lights-out display of defensive aggression and, frankly, an inability to hit some open shots.

“We responded this time,” senior center Patric said that day. “They didn’t.”

Fast forward two weeks.

In the victory over Alabama, the Crimson Tide made shots; 55 percent, to be exact, which marked the highest UF has yielded this season. It took the Gators aback, somewhat. After all, they’re one of the best defensive teams, statistically, in the country.

Then again, those stats merely represented events that already have happened.

And around and around we go.

“Just because that’s been the case in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be the case [Tuesday],” said Donovan, whose team is 5-2 on the road this season (for whatever that’s worth). “We are going to have to perform and play very, very well. I have confidence with our guys going on the road and playing. We’ve got some older guys who have been through it and understand it.”

No. 3 Florida vs Tennessee

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.
Records: Florida 21-2 (10-0); Tennessee (15-8, 6-4)
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
Game notes: Florida notes; Tennessee notes


History: The Volunteers lead the all-time series 72-53, including an 18-17 edge since Coach Billy Donovan arrived in 1996. The Gators nudged a step closer to evening the ledger under Donovan, thanks to the 67-41 beating in Gainesville on Jan. 25 when UF held UT to 26.8 percent from the floor and 5.2 percent (as in 1-for-19) from the 3-point line, making for UT’s worst shooting display in 17 years. Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II led four players into double figures with 17 points. The Gators, though, have lost seven of the last eight at Thompson-Boling, the lone win coming in overtime in 2011.

Pre-game storylines: Florida has a two-game lead over Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference race, but the trip to Knoxville marks the first of back-to-back road dates at the league’s two largest (and most hostile) venues: Thompson-Boling Tuesday then on Lexington and Rupp Arena this weekend for what will be the biggest, most-hyped league game of the season. ... The Gators have lost seven of the last eight at Tennessee and are 2-9 dating to the 2003 season.

The Gators: UF will be out to clean up its defense after surrendering a season-worst 55 percent to Alabama -- no opponent had hit 44 percent this season -- in Saturday’s win in Gainesville. The Gators still lead the SEC in scoring defense (57.9 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (.390), and have managed to climb up to the eighth national in defensive efficiency (points per possession) at .885. ... After scoring just 12 points in the previous two games combined, senior forward Casey Prather (15.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) looked more like his athletic self in the Bama win in going for 15 and 6. He’s still not quite there yet, but after taking Sunday off from practice the UF training staff hopes its easing Prather back to where he needs to be. ... Point guard Scottie Wilbekin (12.6 ppg) started the season 10-for-20 from the free-throw line through seven games. In the past 11, he’s 49 of 63 for 77.7 percent, including 13-for-16 against Missouri last week. ... Sophomore reserve forward Dorian Finney-Smith (9.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg) has hit double-figures just once in the last seven games, including just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting combined the last two games.

The Volunteers: First and foremost, they are not the team the Gators dismantled by 26 points 2 1/2 weeks ago and the Vols will be out to prove that’s the case. ... Tennessee is the SEC’s best rebounding team when it comes to the defensive end of the floor (30.3 per game) and also leads the league in fewest turnovers averaged (just 10.6 per). ... Jordan McRae (19.3 ppg, 39.9 percent from 3-point range) is one of the SEC’s most explosive scorers. He hung 27 on the Gators in last year’s UT win at Knoxville, but had just five points and hit one of 15 shots in the game at Gainesville. ... The twin tree-trunk frontcourt duo of Jarnell Stokes (14 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and Jeronne Maymon (11 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is the most physical in the league. Both go 6-8, 260, and have pushed the Gators around before. 

Key numbers:

* 6 - Points Frazier needs to reach 500 for his career (and just his 60th game).

* 10 - Points Patric Young needs to pass Joakim Noah and move to No. 39 on the school’s all-time scoring list.

* 19 - Double-figure scoring games for Prather this season. He had nine his previous three seasons combined.

* 12/11/10 - The last time the Vols defeated a team ranked in the top 3. UT upset third-ranked Pittsburgh 83-76 on the road on Dec. 11, 2010.

* 5,381 - Career points scored by the Tennessee coaching staff, which ranks as the most of any coaching staff in the country. Head coach Cuonzo Martin tallied 1,666 at Purdue. His assistants: Tracy Webster (Wisconsin) 1,264; Jon Harris (Marquette) 439; Kent Williams (Syracuse) 2,012. 

Watch for it: Can’t emphasize enough what the early stages of this game will mean, as far as Florida absorbing Tennessee’s physicality -- like the Gators did last month -- and dishing out a bit of its own in what figures to be a very inhospitable environment.


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