No. 6 Vols preparing for short-handed Gators

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    While Tennessee’s football team is stealing the headlines, the basketball team has quietly jumped to No. 6 in the latest AP Top 25.

    The Vols return to the hardwood on Tuesday night when they travel to Gainesville for a meeting with Florida. A win would give Tennessee its fifth consecutive victory over the Gators.

    It has been a nice bounce back effort for the Vols after their loss to Alabama on Jan. 2. They have picked up wins over Arkansas, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, with the latter two coming by double digits.

    Tennessee’s defense ranks second in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings and leads the country in block percentage. It will be facing a Florida offense that has taken a step back after losing Keyontae Johnson, who was the preseason SEC Player of the Year.

    “It’s also not just physically replacing that person, but the mental side of it too and how you approach the team,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “Give someone a chance to step up, but that person may not be quite as ready as the person you lost. So, now you have to go back to figuring out how to shape your team with the other players being given larger roles.”

    Without Johnson in the mix, sophomore guard Tre Mann leads the Gators with 14.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Mike White’s team shoots the ball well from the perimeter at 37.6 percent, but it does not take many 3-pointers.

    The Gators would rather get good looks in the paint, which can be challenging against the Tennessee defense. Junior forward Colin Castleton, who transferred from Michigan to Florida, has scored 37 combined points over the last two games.

    “They are going to spread you out,” Barnes said. “They are going to be at a point of contact on that ball screen. I think he (White) puts his players in positions where they need to be.”

    Sophomore guard Scottie Lewis, who is a former five-star recruit and Florida’s only other player averaging double figures, is going to miss his third consecutive game due to “health and safety reasons.” The Gators have lost three of their last four games without Lewis and Johnson.

    Tennessee’s guards will be looking to take advantage of a shorthanded Florida roster. Victor Bailey Jr. leads the Vols with 12.3 points per game. Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Josiah Jordan-James are all averaging at least 8.4 points per contest.

    James averaged 2.5 turnovers per game last season, but he has trimmed that number to 1.0 per game this season. He scored 17 points in the win against Arkansas on Jan. 6.

    “He works hard and puts his time in,” Barnes said. “He really takes a lot of pride in studying the game and doing all of the things you would want him to do as a coach, but it’s just a matter of time—he wants to be the best player he can possibly be and he’s going to continue to work at it in every way that he can.”

    Senior forward John Fulkerson will be looking to do damage against Castleton in the paint. He has scored in double figures in each of the last three games, including a 15-point showing against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

    Florida’s defense has been one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country (No. 6), but it has struggled on the defensive glass.

    “Defensively he (White) is going to mix it up,” Barnes said. “He is going to pressure you in the back court a couple different ways. He’s going to show you some zone. He’s a multiple defensive coach. I think he’ll do it and see how his players can adjust to it. I think they are an aggressive team.”

    Tuesday night’s game at the O’Connell Center is set to tip off at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.