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What to Know: Tennessee vs. Florida

Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

The regular season is winding down, and Tennessee faces yet another difficult test on Saturday when they welcome the Florida Gators to Knoxville.

Tennessee (15-13, 7-8 SEC) will look to bounce back against the Gators (18-10, 10-5) after losing back-to-back SEC games. The Vols have fallen in consecutive road games after defeating Vanderbilt at home on February 18th. Florida, meanwhile, has won four of their last five contests.

The Vols enter Saturday’s match-up with a 76-57 overall record against Florida, and UT is 47-16 all-time against the Gators in Knoxville. Tennessee has won three-straight games against UF in Thompson-Boling Arena, with their last loss at home to the Gators coming in 2014.

Both Mike White and Rick Barnes were hired in the same offseason at their respective schools, and they have earned a very similar record in that five-year span. White has gone 107-63 and has led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons. Barnes is 103-63 at Tennessee and has made it to the Big Dance the last two seasons.

The Gators are led by sophomore guard Keyontae Johnson, who is averaging 14.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Kerry Blackshear Jr. (13.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG), Andrew Nembhard (11.8 PPG, 5.4 APG), Noah Locke (10.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG), and Scottie Lewis (8.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG) round out the supporting cast for Florida.

Here’s a look at the most important things to know and keep an eye on for Saturday’s match-up between the Vols and Gators at 2:00 PM Eastern on ESPN2.

Opposite Directions

You’d be hard-pressed to find two teams moving in more opposite directions to end the regular season than Tennessee and Florida.

The Vols haven’t had much consistency at all over the last month-plus, and they’ve squandered opportunities to move up the SEC standings. Tennessee has not only lost two-straight games and three of their last four contests, but they enter Saturday’s contest having gone just 3-7 in their last 10 games. At least three of those losses (Texas A&M, South Carolina, Auburn) could’ve been wins for the Vols had they executed just slightly better in the second half. UT also gave now-No. 1 Kansas a fight at the end of January.

Alas, close doesn’t count in basketball, and Tennessee is trending the wrong way heading into March.

Florida, meanwhile, has finally started to play closer to their potential.

The Gators have won four of their last five contests and are 6-2 in their last eight games. Florida went from 12-8 overall and 4-3 in SEC play after a loss to Mississippi State at home to suddenly sitting at 18-10 overall and 10-5 in conference play. The Gators are currently in line for one of the top four overall seeds in the upcoming SEC Tournament.

If Florida is going to struggle, it will likely happen on the road, though. The Gators are 11-3 at home and 4-1 on a neutral court, but they’re just 3-6 in road games this season. Their only road wins this season have come against South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M.

Very Efficient 

Though Florida runs at a fairly slow pace on offense, they’re extremely effective whenever they do put up shots.

The Gators are first in the SEC in overall field goal percentage (46.7%) and three-point shooting percentage (37.6%) in conference play this season. According to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, Florida ranks 30th in Division I basketball in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Florida loves to shoot threes, and they have one of the best three-point shooters in the entire SEC. Sophomore guard Noah Locke is hitting his threes at a 43.2 percent clip this season, and he’s averaging 2.5 made three-pointers per game. Locke’s 70 made three-pointers ranks fourth among all SEC players this season.

Keyontae Johnson (38.0%) and Scottie Lewis (36.4%) can also hit their threes at a high rate.

Tennessee has struggled a bit with defending the three in SEC play. Opponents are hitting 31.7 percent of their threes against the Vols in conference play, which ranks ninth. UT’s overall defensive efficiency has also dropped in recent weeks, as Tennessee’s adjusted defensive efficiency now ranks 54th on KenPom.

Interesting Connections

Florida’s roster has several connections to Tennessee in both obvious and subtle ways.

It’s no secret that the Vols heavily pursued Virginia Tech grad transfer forward Kerry Blackshear in the offseason, and Tennessee very much believed they would land him. Instead, Blackshear went to Florida, and he’s been the Gators’ main post presence this season.

That’s not to say that Blackshear has had a great year, though.

The senior is averaging fewer points and assists per game than he did at Virginia Tech last season, and he’s shooting worse as well, making just 43.6 percent of his shots compared to hitting 50.8 percent in the 2018-19 season as a Hokie. Blackshear is still averaging 13.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.6 assists, so he’s not necessarily having a bad season, but it’s been a somewhat disappointing one.

Blackshear has been wildly inconsistent this season, too. He’s totaled at least 15 points in 11 games, but he’s also had 10 or fewer points in nine games. He has, however, totaled eight double-doubles on the year.

But he’s not the only player on UF’s roster with some sort of tie to UT.

The Gators feature a couple guards who Vol fans may recognize, too. Tennessee recruited point guard Tre Mann and pushed hard for him, but he ended up choosing Florida. He’s played in 26 games this season and has made four starts, averaging 5.3 points and 1.9 rebounds.

Ques Glover is a name that should definitely ring a bell to Vol fans in Knoxville. Glover played for Bearden High School and was a teammate of Vol freshman forward Drew Pember. Glover has been an asset off the bench for the Gators, averaging 4.7 points and 1.1 rebounds while shooting 43 percent overall in 13.3 minutes a game.

Freshman center Jason Jitoboh is another prospect the Vols were interested in who ended up choosing Florida. Jitoboh hasn’t played a ton this season, and he’s not likely to appear in Saturday’s game unless the Gators elect to go with a bigger lineup at some point.

A Series of Streaks

The Tennessee-Florida rivalry in men’s basketball has rarely been a back-and-forth affair; usually, one team wins for a while, then the other will rattle off several wins in a row.

Tennessee enters Saturday’s match-up having won three-straight games against the Gators. Before a swapping of wins in 2016 and 2017, Florida had a four-game winning streak over the Vols. Before that, UT had won three-straight. The Gators, again, had a four-game winning streak over Tennessee from 2010-12, and UT had won six-straight against Florida before that.

The nearly 100-year-old rivalry that dates back to 1927 has featured 17 different winning streaks of three or more games combined between the two schools. Tennessee’s longest streak in the series lasted nine games from January of 1972 through March of 1978. Florida’s longest streak against the Vols was 14-straight wins from February of 1991 through January of 1998.

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