The Tennessee men’s basketball team will attempt to cap off a perfect regular season home record when they play host to the 2006 National Champion Florida Gators tonight.
“We’ve certainly got a great challenge ahead of us,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Tennessee is playing as well as anyone in the conference right now.”
No. 2 Florida (25-4, 12-2) comes into the game in a bit of a slump, losing two out of its last three games. Both losses were on the road by double digits. The Gators lost in Memorial Gymnasium to the Vanderbilt Commodores 83-70 10 days ago and lost Saturday to LSU, who was playing without its 2005-06 SEC Player of the Year, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, 66-56.
Florida had a similar skid late last season, as well, losing four of six. However, the Gators snapped that streak by winning 11 games in a row to end the season, winning the SEC Tournament Championship before taking the NCAA title.
Despite the similarity, Donovan said he does not look at the recent losses that way.
“I view it as a process that we have to go through to reach our full potential,” Donovan said. “If we have to lose two of three, so be it. It’s not about last year and how we are now. It’s about right now.”
Tennessee (20-9, 8-6) swept Florida and won the SEC East by two full games last season, but it was the Gators that ended up winning the games that mattered most. Florida is a win away from avenging last year’s sweep.
The Gators are led by their phenomenal junior class, consisting of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green.
Noah, the 6-foot-11 forward, is arguably the most hated player in college basketball because his intensity is often seen as arrogance. However, he has the game to back it up. Noah was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 Minneapolis Regional as well as the Final Four. The junior is also putting up solid numbers this season, averaging 12.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
When asked by coach Bruce Pearl why he did not leave for the NBA after last season, Noah reportedly told the Vols’ coach that he wanted to beat the Vols twice this year. So far, he has gotten the Gators half way there.
“There’s no doubt Florida will be fired up for that game,” Pearl said. “(They will look) to make amends for last year and keep their No. 1 seed.”
Horford, a 6-foot-10 forward, is the more polished of Florida’s two starting post players. The Dominican Republic native was even the preseason pick for national Player of the Year by ESPN college basketball analyst Andy Katz. Horford is averaging 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Brewer, a 6-foot-9 forward, is the most versatile player on Florida’s team. He can guard all five positions and is the front-runner to be named the National Defensive Player of the Year. The native of Portland, Tenn., is a stat-sheet-stuffer, averaging 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 steals.
Green, a 6-foot point guard, is the team’s on-the-court leader. He leads the team in scoring with 13.0 points per game and assists with 3.4. Green was one of the key ingredients to last year’s title run, and the way he handles Tennessee’s pressure will certainly be a major factor.
Florida’s fifth starter, senior shooting guard Lee Humphrey, continues to fly under the national radar, even after his stellar performance in the NCAA Tournament last year. The product of nearby Maryville, Tenn., is shooting 46 percent from three-point range and is one of the conference’s best on-the-ball defenders.