#4 Tennessee (21-11, 11-7 SEC) vs. #1 Florida (30-2, 18-0)
Saturday, March. 15, 1:00 p.m. ET
The Georgia Dome . Atlanta, Ga.
Radio: Vol Network (WGOW-FM 102.3, Chattanooga)
Series Record: Tennessee leads 72-54
Winner plays the winner of #2 Kentucky vs. #3 Georgia on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Probable Florida Starters
G-Scottie Wilbekin, 6-2, 175, SR (12.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, .397 3FG%)
G-Michael Frazier II, 6-4, 200, SO (12.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .399 3FG%)
F-Casey Prather 6-6, 210, SR, (15.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, .624 FG%)
F-Will Yeguete, 6-8, 230, SR, (5.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.1 spg)
C-Patric Young, 6-9, 240, SR (10.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg)
Key Reserves: Dorian Finney-Smith (6-8, 212, SO); Kasey Hill (6-1, 181, FR); DeVon Walker 6-6, 195, SO); Chris Walker (6-10, 220, FR)
Probable Tennessee Starters
G-Antonio Barton, 6-2, 180, SR, (7.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg, .392 3FG%)
G-Jordan McRae, 6-6, 185, SR, (18.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .376 3FG%)
G-Josh Richardson, 6-6, 190, JR, (9.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .370 3FG%)
F-Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, 260, SR (10.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, .528 FG%)
F-Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, 260, JR, (14.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.2 orpg)
Key Reserves: Darius Thompson (6-5, 180, FR); Derek Reese (6-8, 220, SO); Armani Moore (6-5, 215, SO)
The opening tip
For the first time since 2010, Tennessee will make an appearance in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
Admittedly, it’s been a pretty easy road so far. The Vols received a double bye that advanced them straight to the quarterfinals. And then a South Carolina upset over Arkansas meant Tennessee played the No. 13 seed Gamecocks in a game that UT took care of business in on Friday afternoon.
Now the degree of difficulty goes through the roof on Saturday. Tennessee will face No. 1 seed Florida, the nation’s top-ranked team as well, for the third time this season and the Vols hope for a better result after already dropping two games to the Gators this season.
“Great coaching, the system, the program has won before and the guys that came before passed it down,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of why the Gators have been one of the best teams in the nation this year.
There are a lot of components to Florida that make the Gators tough to beat. The veteran squad, which starts four seniors, leads the SEC in scoring defense (58.5 ppg) and gets good looks on the other end, also leading the conference in field-goal percentage at .463.
They protect the ball, rebound well and make it extremely tough for opponents to get off good shots.
But if any SEC team has a shot at knocking off the regular season champs, perhaps it’s the Vols, who are arguably playing the best in the conference, behind Florida, at this point in the year.
After their win over South Carolina, the Vols have won five straight, haven’t trailed in 200 minutes of game time and are giving up an average of just 45.2 points per game in their last four contests.
Great defense, a hot shooting afternoon and good work inside by Jarnell Stokes, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds against the Gamecocks, should give Tennessee at least a shot to make the finals.
And though the Vols can’t make any NCAA tournament appearance official without winning the whole SEC tournament, consider them as close to 100-percent locks as possible if they knock off the Gators.
There won’t be a ton to lose for the Vols, who think they’ve done enough already as it is to go to the Big Dance. But a win sets UT up with a great chance to win its first SEC tournament since 1979.
“We didn’t come to Atlanta just to win one in the tournament. We came to win the tournament. As I told the guys, if you’re not coming to win the tournament, then don’t get on the bus.”
– Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin
The Vols are expected to wear their gray alternate uniforms against Florida. …Saturday will be Martin’s 100th game as Tennessee’s head coach. . UT’s three major programs (men’s and women’s basketball and football) are just 10-16 in the Georgia Dome. . The Vols haven’t won the SEC tournament since 1979. . A win would give the Vols a six-game winning streak, the longest of the season. . McRae and Stokes were both named First Team All-SEC by the league’s coaches this week. . The Vols enter the week at No. 44 in the NCAA’s official RPI. . Martin is 5-5 all-time in conference tournaments. . The Vols haven’t made the semifinals of the SEC tournament since 2010 (in Nashville). . The Vols are 4-10 all-time against the nation’s top team.
Tennessee is hot, but Florida remains the better team. The Gators are unbeaten in SEC play and while it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season, Florida has a different level of focus and maturity that comes from having such a veteran squad. Tennessee will make it respectable and likely has done enough to hear its name on Selection Sunday, but Florida will advance to the title game.
Florida 67, Tennessee 61
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga