4-seed Tennessee kicks off its SEC Tournament run on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN against 5-seed Florida. The Gators beat 12-seed Vanderbilt 69-63 on Thursday night to set up a third matchup with the Vols.
The Vols (17-7, 10-7 SEC) enter the contest coming off a win over Florida (14-8, 9-7 SEC) last Sunday afternoon. Following senior day activities, John Fulkerson scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds as Tennessee overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Gators 65-54.
Florida won the first matchup between the two teams 75-49 back on Jan. 19 despite missing three key players. Star Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer did not play due to an ankle injury.
Tennessee leads the all-time series with Florida, 78-58, dating back to 1927. The Vols own a 4-4 all-time SEC Tournament record vs. Florida and have won five of their last six games against Florida. Over those six games, neither team has reached 80 points. The Vols and Gators have met only once in Nashville, with Tennessee logging an 80-74 overtime win the 1984 SEC Tournament.
A win over Florida would advance Tennessee to at least the semifinal round of the SEC Tournament for the third straight time (excluding the canceled tournament in 2020) and give the Vols a 6-4 record in SEC Tournament games under Rick Barnes. Tennessee has advanced to the championship game in each of the last two (fully contested) SEC Tournaments. The Volunteers last won the SEC Tournament in 1979.
Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributors Trey Wallace and Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Friday afternoon’s SEC Tournament game between the Vols and Gators:
The previous two matchups between Tennessee and Florida haven’t been the prettiest games of basketball. Florida dominated Tennessee in Gainesville in the first game, while the Vols dominated the Gators in the second half of the second game in Knoxville. Ultimately, the third matchup will come down to how Tennessee defends Florida’s Tre Mann and whether or not the All-SEC version of John Fulkerson shows up.
I do believe the ‘good’ Fulkerson will show up. The senior forward who has battled injuries throughout the season benefited from the week off prior to last Sunday’s win over Florida, and it showed in not only Fulkerson’s play, but the team’s play as well. Fulkerson and the Vols will benefit from another week off.
Pick: Tennessee, 69-66
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson
Johnson’s play will be critical against the Gators. Not on the offensive end of the floor, but on the defensive end of the floor as he’ll likely be in charge of defending Mann, who did not play last Sunday due to a migraine. Johnson has played very well defensively of late and his strong play on that side of the floor will limit Mann just enough to help the Vols advance.
This is an opportunity for Tennessee to finally prove they have some kind of consistency. The Vols are coming off a win against Florida, this past Sunday, but the Gators were missing Tre Mann. This will be a key defensive matchup for potentially Keon Johnson. Tennessee must continue attacking the paint and get an impactful game from John Fulkerson.
Pick: Tennessee, 76-68
MVP: Tennessee senior forward John Fulkerson
John Fulkerson is coming off a nice performance against the Gators and I am looking towards him on Saturday. This is the perfect chance for Fulky to put up a big time performance, as the Florida defense could be focused on the freshmen.
One of the beautiful things about March is that teams can sometimes break a tie from their regular-season series. Tennessee and Florida will be afforded that opportunity when they meet in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday afternoon. The Vols picked up a 65-54 win behind a strong second half on Sunday, earning a double bye in the tournament. Florida got past Vanderbilt on Thursday to set up a rematch.
There’s a reason Florida led by 14 points at one point in the regular-season finale. There’s also a reason why Tennessee went on a 21-4 run in the second half. This game should come down to the wire. Florida is going to benefit from having sophomore guard Tre Mann available—he missed Sunday’s game, but he scored 22 points on Thursday. Tennessee is coming off one of its best second halves of the season and once again showed that it is capable of putting things together. Some people don’t trust Rick Barnes in a tournament setting, but I think the Vols will advance to the semifinals.
Pick: Tennessee, 71-66
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Keon Johnson
Johnson scored 14 points in Sunday’s win and shot 7 of 11 from the floor. It’s tournament time—I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson play 35 minutes on Friday.