Over their last three games the Tennessee Vols shot 5 of 5, 10 of 15 and 10 of 21 from 3-point range, a sizzling 60.9 percent success rate. Still, they're brick-layers compared to the team they'll face tonight at 9:05 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Despite their recent long-range surge, the Vols are shooting just 31.9 percent from 3 on the season, a figure which ranks 11th in the SEC. Moreover, their average of 4.9 treys per game ranks 12th among the 14 conference teams. Conversely, visiting Florida leads the league in 3-point percentage (38.8) and 3-pointers made per game (8.9).
The Gators' brilliance from behind the arc is a major reason they are 22-4 overall, 12-2 in SEC play and ranked No. 8 nationally. Except for 6-foot-9, 249-pound Patric Young, every player in their starting lineup is a 3-point threat.
Erik Murphy, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, shoots 47.9 percent from beyond the arc. Starting guards Scottie Wilbekin (36.8 percent), Mike Rosario (36.4 percent) and Kenny Boynton (33.5 percent) also are effective from downtown. Florida's best 3-point shooter doesn't even start. Michael Frazier, a 6-foot-4 freshman, is hitting 48.9 percent (43 of 88) from beyond the arc. He is expected to miss tonight's game with a concussion.
Though a modest 16-10 overall and 8-6 in SEC play, Tennessee is 5-0 since switching to a quicker and more athletic four-guard lineup. "Small ball" may be the best way to defend the perimeter against the trey-happy Gators.
"They're a tough guard, especially when you've got two conventional bigs," Vol senior Skylar McBee said. "But, with the four-guard lineup we've been playing, I don't think it's going to be as big of a problem."
The key for Tennessee is whether 6-foot-5 freshman Armani Moore can use his superior quickness and leaping ability to offset Murphy's height.
"Armani's been doing a great job," McBee said. "He can make that (inside/outside) transition on defense where he can play both. When we played (6-foot-9 LSU star) Johnny O'Bryant he did a great job of limiting him in the post, and I think he can do that with Murphy. Also, he (Moore) is a guard, so he's used to playing out on the perimeter, used to switching and doing the things we need to do in order to guard him (Murphy)."
Cuonzo Martin, who swept Florida last season, agrees that small ball may the best answer to the Gators' perimeter attack.
"If you play two traditional bigs against these guys it is really tough to defend when that other big is not able to switch," Tennessee's head coach said. "Then you try to hedge ball-screens and they string you out so much if you try to do that.
|Coach Cuonzo Martin says confidence is the reason why his Vols are scorching the nets from downtown.|
"You really have to make them extend their offense. If they're able to get the ball to the 3-point line and run their offense, then they're just a tough team to defend."
Although Florida is the best team in the SEC, Tennessee is the hottest team in the SEC. The five-game winning streak has put some pep in the Vols' step.
"I think confidence is the most important thing outside of what we do on the court and how we do it," Martin said. "When you play with a level of confidence you have a chance to do big things."
Much of that confidence stems from hitting a few long-range shots, something the Vols had not done until the past three games.
"You're talking about a team that was not making 3-point shots at all," Martin said. "Now you go five-for-five, 10-for-15, and 10-for-21 from the 3-point line. It's the same guys; it's just a (higher) level of confidence."
Over the past three games McBee has hit 7 of 10 shots from 3, Jordan McRae 10 of 13 and Trae Golden 6 of 13. That has made a world of difference.
"I think we're riding a little bit of a confidence wave right now where we're all shooting the ball well," McBee said. "Hopefully, that continues."
Obviuosly, Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes would get a huge lift from beating a top-10 team like the Gators. The Vols understand this.
"I'm not going to say it's a must-win," McBee said, "but it's something that's definitely going to build the resume."
GAME NOTES: Billy Donovan has won two national titles and 72 percent of his games as Florida's head coach, yet he stands 16-17 versus Tennessee.... The Big Orange prevailed 75-70 last February in Gainesville, snapping the Gators' 19-game home winning streak. The Vols were 0-7 in road games prior to that.... Florida leads the SEC in scoring defense (53.1 points per game), scoring margin (plus-20.6), field-goal percentage (49.2), 3-point percentage (38.8), 3-pointers made per game (8.9), field-goal defense (37.3 percent), 3-point defense (30.1 percent) and assists (16.0 per game). The Gators are second in rebound margin (plus-6.0).... Tonight's game will be aired nationally by ESPN.