No. 8 Florida (22-4, 12-2 SEC) at Tennessee (16-10, 8-6 SEC)
Tuesday, Feb. 26, 9:05 p.m. ET
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) • Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads, 71-52
Probable Florida Starters
C-Patric Young, 6-9, 250, JR, (10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, .610 FG%)
F-Erik Murphy, 6-10, 238, SR, (12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, .479 3FG%)
G-Mike Rosario, 6-3, 185, SR, (13.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, .364 3FG%)
G-Kenny Boynton, 6-2, 190, JR, (12.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .335 3FG%)
G-Scottie Wilbekin, 6-2, 176, JR, (9.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.4 apg)
Key Reserves: Casey Prather (6-6, 210, JR); Braxton Ogbueze (6-0, 180, FR); Devon Walker (6-6, 190, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 270, SO, (12.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, .541 FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 188, SO, (7.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, .497 FG%)
G-Armani Moore, 6-5, 203, FR, (2.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-5, 178, JR, (14.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, .345 3PT%)
G-Trae Golden, 6-2, 205, JR, (12.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.1 apg)
Key Reserves: Skylar McBee (6-3, 195, SR); Kenny Hall (6-9, 230, SR); Yemi Makanjuola (6-9, 250, SO); Quinton Chievous (6-5, 200, FR)
The opening tip
In a league that has been somewhat characterized by mediocrity this year, Florida has stood above the rest as a legitimate Final Four contender.
Tennessee, a team with plenty of work to do to make the NCAA Tournament, must find a way to bridge that gap quickly with the Gators coming to town on Tuesday night.
The Vols have a history of being at their best against the Gators, though. Ten different times an unranked UT squad has knocked off a Florida team ranked in the AP Top 25. That includes twice last season, when the unranked Vols swept the Gators, who were ranked in the Top 15 during both matchups.
The Vols are also riding a season-long, five-game winning streak into Tuesday, capped most recently by a thrilling four-overtime victory at Texas A&M on Saturday. History, momentum and the crowd will all be in UT’s favor, but that doesn’t diminish the task at hand of beating one of the most complete teams in the nation.
Stopping the frontcourt of Patric Young and Erik Murphy is the first challenge. Young, at 6-9 and 250 pounds, is a traditional big who matches up well physically with Jarnell Stokes. Murphy has the body of a forward, but the shooting touch of an elite guard. The senior has canned nearly 50 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. He’ll likely be matched up against a UT guard, but his 6-10 frame also makes him a threat to post up down low and get easy buckets that way as well.
An experienced and talented backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton rounds out their starting five. Wilbekin facilitates the offense while Rosario and Boynton launch 3-pointers or drive and dish to the big men.
A fatigued Tennessee squad will have just over 48 hours to recoup from its marathon game in College Station. Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, Skylar McBee and Josh Richardson all played career-high minutes in the victory.
The Vols have cut their rotation with Golden, McRae and Stokes taking on a majority of the scoring load. Richardson, McBee, Armani Moore and Kenny Hall play key supporting roles and others such as Yemi Makanjuola and Quinton Chievous get situational minutes.
Depth could be an area the Vols hold an edge in. With injuries to Florida’s Michael Frazier and Will Yeguete, the Gators will only bring six players to Knoxville who have seen significant minutes this year. That doesn’t diminish the talent of who will play, but could be a factor if it’s a physical contest.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin on the magnitude of Tuesday’s game:
“[The players] identify certain games and situations, matchups, the exposure of games with ESPN, the lights, you are talking about a potential Final Four team coming in, a team that you beat and you have a great opportunity to enhance your profile as you look at an NCAA tournament team. [Players] understand that part, but as coaches it is just one game at a time.”
Tennessee is up from No. 69 to No. 57 in the latest NCAA-released RPI rankings on Monday. The Vols’ best wins have been against Wichita State (30), Kentucky (46), UMass (55) and Alabama (62). Florida is currently ranked No. 4. … Cuonzo Martin is 2-0 against Florida coach Billy Donovan. … Golden was named the SEC Player of the Week for his performances against A&M and LSU last week. … Tennessee is currently tied for fifth in the SEC with Arkansas and Missouri. The top four teams in the league get a double bye in the SEC Tournament in March. … Jarnell Stokes now has nine double-doubles in his last 11 contests.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga