Tennessee enters the biggest game of the Cuonzo Martin era hoping tonight’s showdown with third-ranked Florida bears no resemblance to the earlier meeting at Gainesville.
Magnifying the importance of this game is the fact a win accomplishes two objectives: One, it solidifies the Vols’ chances of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. Two, it solidifies Martin’s chances of returning as head coach for 2014-15.
Although a competitive loss tonight is unlikely to cost the Vols a bid or their coach his job, a home-floor beat-down on par with the loss Tennessee suffered Jan. 25 at the O’Connell Center could doom both the Big Orange and its coach. That’s because the Vols were not even remotely competitive in the previous meeting. The Gators rolled 67-41, limiting Tennessee to 26.8 percent shooting from the field and 5.3 percent shooting (1 of 19) from 3-point range. Guards Jordan McRae (1 of 15), Josh Richardson (0 of 7) and Antonio Barton (1 of 7) combined to make just 2 of 29 shots.
Although Florida’s swarming defense deserves considerable credit for the Vols’ woeful shooting that day, Tennessee’s sloppy offense contributed to its downfall.
"I think it was a little bit of both,” Martin said. “From our standpoint (there were) quick shots, off-balance shots. But then you have to give credit to the defense for that. We were not executing at the level we needed to, as well."
Another performance like that one – this time coming at Thompson-Boling Arena – could knock the Vols (15-8 overall, 6-4 SEC) off the NCAA Tournament bubble and crank up the heat on Martin, whose job security is a hot topic on message boards and talk radio throughout Big Orange Country these days.
Given the stakes and the memories of how they were humiliated at Gainesville, the Vols should be motivated for tonight’s rematch. Still, Tennessee’s players say this game isn’t about vengeance.
"No, it’s not, as far as like getting back at them or anything,” McRae said. “They beat us. We just really want to go out there and play hard and execute what we're doing. If we do that then it will be a good game."
The fact Florida is 21-2 overall and 10-0 in SEC play has Tennessee’s attention. With the game nationally televised by ESPN, the Vols have a golden opportunity to reclaim some of the respect they squandered with earlier home losses to North Carolina State and Texas A&M.
"Big games are going to be on a Super Tuesday,” McRae said. “Everybody knows that, and Florida's a team everybody really wants to beat."
No one in the SEC has beaten the Gators to date, however. That’s because Florida’s press is utterly disruptive. It certainly disrupted Tennessee in the earlier meeting – not so much by forcing turnovers as by keeping the Vols from running their offense. Many Big Orange possessions ended with a low-percentage attempt launched just before the shot-clock buzzer.
Will tonight be any different? Jarnell Stokes is cautiously optimistic.
"I think we’re in for a dog fight,” Tennessee’s junior post said. “Florida’s a very good team. The way they double-team is kind of scary. But I think we’ll do a better job against the press.”
Tennessee devoted considerable practice time to its press offense following the melt-down in Gainesville. As a result, the Vols did a much better job coping with pressure one week later in a win at Alabama, which pressed Tennessee with very little success.
“We somewhat handled Alabama’s press, and that’s a team that always killed us in previous years with the press,” Stokes noted. “Florida runs a similar-style offense and a similar-style defense, too, so I think this time around will be better for us."
Martin believes the key to handling the press is attacking it forcefully, rather than tentatively.
“You have to be aggressive,” he said. “These guys have seen press since they were youth. They have to get it across the court and attack the rim. You can't be passive."
Not when an NCAA Tournament bid and the coach’s job are on the line, for sure.