No. 3 Tennessee, class of SEC, storms into Florida
Tennessee is off to a dominant start to the 2018-19 season, ranked No. 2 in the nation and looking like the class of the SEC.
Florida, meanwhile, is still searching for an offensive identity.
The Volunteers (13-1, 2-0) will look to extend their nine-game win streak when they face the Gators on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla.
Tennessee has won its two SEC games by an average margin of 35 points. Despite junior forward and leading scorer Grant Williams fouling out of the game, Tennessee rallied from down nine points in the first half to win 87-63 on Tuesday night at Missouri. Williams, the SEC's leading scorer at 18.8 points per game, fouled out with just four points, but senior forward Kyle Alexander picked up the slack with 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, while junior guard Jordan Bone scored a team-high 17 points.
"They punched us early and it was good for our team," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes told reporters after the game.
The Gators (9-5, 1-1 SEC) bounced back from dropping its conference home opener to South Carolina with a 57-51 win at Arkansas on Wednesday. In the 71-69 loss to the Gamecocks, the Gators blew a 14-point second-half lead. In the Arkansas game, the Gators saw a 16-point second-half lead trimmed to two in the final minutes, but held on thanks to four clutch free throws from senior guard KeVaughn Allen in the final 12 seconds. Allen led the Gators with 18 points.
"We've got to find a way to close out games better," Florida coach Mike White said after the game.
White said the Vols will present a huge challenge due to their balance and ability to score inside and outside. Tennessee returns all five starters from a team that shared the regular-season SEC championship with Auburn last season and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"They could win the national championship," White said.
Despite returning three starters, Florida has been unable to develop any offensive consistency this season, ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring (69.9 points per game) and 13th in field-goal percentage (.431). The Gators to rank first in the SEC in scoring defense (60.0), however, and will need to be strong on that end of the floor to have a chance to upset a Vols team that leads the SEC in scoring offense at 86.4 points per game.
White tried to shake things up against Arkansas, going with a four-guard lineup with senior Jalen Hudson starting in place of junior forward Keith Stone. Hudson, the Gators' leading scorer at 15.5 points per game last season, has struggled so far in 2018-19, averaging 6.7 points while shooting .315 from the floor.
Before the Arkansas game, White called out his team for lacking senior leadership.
"We have a few guys with a sense of urgency," White said. "We don't have enough of them. Sometimes you feel like you're dragging these guys a little. That's not the sign of a great team.
"When you have to coach effort, when you have freshmen leading, that's not the sign of a great team and that's where we're at."
--Field Level Media
Updated January 11, 2019