Surprise blowouts are delightful, but perhaps we forgot how much fun one of these can be too.
Florida was 22nd in overall KenPom and fifth in defensive efficiency. The Vols were favored by only a deuce. And to the finish, the Gators lived up to all of that, even if differently than we thought.
The Gators take a lot of threes…but 22 of them in the first half compared to seven attempts from inside the arc? Not sure I’ve seen that ratio against the Vols before. But…it worked. Florida splashed enough of them for a 38-35 halftime advantage, due in large part to their ability to defend well without fouling. Tennessee had just three tries at the free throw line in the first half, and still finished -7 in attempts to the Gators for the game.
Florida was good defensively…but in the end, just not quite good enough.
Tennessee answered a KeVauhgn Allen three to open the second half with an 8-0 run to take the lead. The Vols pushed the lead to five a couple of times around the ten minute mark, but Florida didn’t fold. With eight minutes to play, a wild sequence saw eight consecutive possessions end with points: each time Florida took the lead first, then the Vols immediately tied it up. And by “the Vols”, I mean Jordan Bowden: 12 straight Tennessee points, capped off with a three, a steal, and a slam to give Tennessee the lead.
The Vols held the lead into the final minute, up two. Points came easiest on this night for Grant Williams, who followed up a 23-point performance against Florida last year with 20 tonight. He got the ball near the top of the key, took a step or two…and found Admiral Schofield in the corner. And if you’re looking for a big shot this year, look no further: a three with three on the shot clock put the Vols up five with 45 seconds to play. A couple free throws and a couple steal-and-scores from there, and we got this:
Again, Florida was good. But “good” simply isn’t enough to beat Tennessee right now.
I feel like we’ve been on the other side of this game plenty of times against a top-five Kentucky or Florida squad: played hard, played well, had our chances, couldn’t finish. If you like that comparison, consider this: the Vols go to +28.60 in KenPom, fourth nationally and, insanely, second nationally in offense. Only two of John Calipari’s Kentucky teams finished a year better than +28.60. One won the title with Anthony Davis, the other was undefeated until it lost in the Final Four. Only two of Billy Donovan’s Florida teams finished a year better than that (KenPom goes back to 2002). One won the title in 2007, the other made the Elite Eight in 2013.
There’s a ton of basketball left to play, and plenty of chances for the Vols to go up or down. But right now, the Vols are playing among or above elite company in both Tennessee and recent SEC history.
A week on the road leads to a week at home: Arkansas on Tuesday, Alabama on Saturday. Kermit Davis and Ole Miss inserting themselves into the SEC title race has done nothing to change the back-ended nature of Tennessee’s schedule: the Vols will finish the season with at LSU, at Ole Miss, vs Kentucky, vs Mississippi State, at Auburn. We get the Cats twice, of course, but otherwise those are the only meetings on the calendar with the rest of that list. Florida returns to Knoxville on February 9.
Long way to go. But so far, lots of fun along the way.