Vols face character test

Today's 1 o'clock tipoff between No. 14 Tennessee and unranked Florida at Thompson-Boling Arena will test more than the Vols' skill. Reeling from consecutive losses, it will test their resolve and resilience.

"Anytime when things are going right and there are lot of smiles in the locker room - you're excited and happy - it's easy to come to practice and to come out for the next game," senior point guard Bobby Maze said. "But what about when you come off back-to-back losses in conference play?"

That's where the Vols find themselves today. They achieved a 15-2 record and No. 8 national ranking before losing 78-63 at Georgia on Jan. 23 and losing 85-76 at home to Vanderbilt on Jan. 27. Another loss today would deal a crushing blow to their hopes of repeating as SEC East champs.

"This is going to say a lot about our character," Maze said. "Our character is going to be tested to see how we can overcome this. We have a good Florida basketball team coming in here. I think there will be a nice crowd out there, and all eyes will be on us."

A rabid home crowd helped carry the Vols to an upset of top-ranked Kansas on Jan. 10 but even the fans couldn't rally the Big Orange in Wednesday night's lethargic loss to Vandy.

No matter what level of crowd support they get, the Vols need to play much better today than they did against Georgia and Vanderbilt. Otherwise, their losing streak will stretch to three games by this evening. Maze understands that.

"Do we go down from here or step up?" he said. "I think we'll do a good job of stepping but we have to understand that conference play is going to be tough this season."

Whereas Tennessee (15-4 overall, 3-2 SEC) has lost two games in a row, Florida (15-5, 4-2) has won four games in a row. That's one of several intriguing storylines surrounding the game, which will be televised by CBS.

Here are a few:

- Don't look for a long-range shooting exhibition. Tennessee ranks ninth among the 12 SEC teams in 3-point percentage (33.3) and Florida is even worse ... 11th at 31.8 percent. In addition, both teams excel at defending the 3-pointer. Florida leads the SEC, allowing just 30.0 percent. Tennessee ranks second, allowing just 31.0 percent.

- Two precision offenses will be on display. Tennessee ranks second among SEC teams in assists per game (15.6), with Florida one notch back at 14.9. Moreover, Florida leads the league in assist/turnover ratio at 1.21 to 1, while Tennessee is second at 1.19 to 1.

- Expect a relatively low-scoring affair. Florida ranks third among SEC teams in scoring defense (allowing just 63.2 points per game) and Tennessee ranks fourth (65.2 ppg).

- Big Orange coach Bruce Pearl has a 7-1 head-to-head record against Florida counterpart Billy Donovan, including a 4-0 mark at Thompson-Boling Arena. Whether that gives the Vols an edge in confidence or gives the Gators an edge in motivation is anyone's guess.

Like Tennessee's players, Tennessee's coach is eager to try and snap the losing streak and get the season back on track.

"Every game," Pearl said, "presents new challenges and new opportunities."

Tennessee's biggest challenge this season has been overcoming the dismissal of star player Tyler Smith. The 6-7 senior was a double-figure scorer and a solid rebounder who excelled at breaking down an opposing defense. Without him, the Vols are suffering offensively, shooting less than 45 percent in each of their past four games. Trying to break out of their doldrums against a good Florida team won't be easy.

"It's going to be a struggle," Pearl said.

GAME NOTES: All five Florida starters boast double-figure scoring averages. Leading at 15.0 points per game is 6-2 freshman guard Kenny Boynton. Backcourt mate Erving Walker, a 5-8 sophomore, is second at 13.3 points per game. Alex Tyus, a 6-8, 220-pound junior, is third in scoring at 12.5, followed by 6-9, 215-pound junior Chandler Parsons (10.6) and 6-10, 240-pound junior Vernon Macklin (10.0).... Walker has made 70 percent of his 3-point tries (14 of 20) over the past four games. He also leads the Gators in assists at 5.3 per game.... Tyus leads in rebounding at 6.9 per game, followed closely by Parsons at 6.5.... Florida is 3-1 in true road games this season.

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