Sixth-ranked Tennessee will take to the road on Tuesday in hopes of keeping alive its bid for a Southeastern Conference championship against the Florida Gators in Gainesville.
The Volunteers (10-1, 4-1 SEC) have won three in a row and will be coming off an 81-61 home-court victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday night.
Tennessee got the win over the Commodores thanks to a big, bounce-back contribution from Victor Bailey Jr. and his ability to connect from long range at a critical point in the game.
Bailey hit three straight 3-pointers over a three-minute span in the second half that allowed the Volunteers to gain separation from the Commodores.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes hopes that Bailey, who scored just three points at Texas A&M on Jan. 9, can keep his shooting touch against Florida (6-4, 3-3) on Tuesday.
“I think you need a player like VJ that can do that. We watch him do it,” Barnes said. “He does it in practice.
“VJ is a guy that, prior to the season starting, he was shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line. So we’ve watched him do it. For the most part, when he takes good shots, we think they’re going in because we see it a lot. There’s no doubt we need that from him. But overall it’s just consistency on the offensive end is where we have to get better.”
Bailey leads the Volunteers with his 12.3 points per game average, but he is far from Tennessee’s only weapon.
John Fulkerson, a Wooden Award candidate, is averaging 11.9 points per outing and 6.4 rebounds.
Santiago Vescovi (10.1) and Jaden Springer (10.0) are averaging double figures in scoring as well.
Keon Johnson added a team-high 16 against the Commodores.
“I think he was really good,” Barnes said of Johnson. “Sometimes I’m probably unrealistic in my expectations of all these guys because I’ve been around them and I know how hard they work. Young guys are young guys. We put him in the middle when they were pressing because we think he can go and he’s a playmaker, but he has to learn to make the right decisions. That’s part of it.
Barnes said he took Johnson out of the game twice “because he went for steals and gave up baskets because he’s trying to make a spectacular play to get out and go dunk the ball.”
Then there’s that Tennessee defense. The Volunteers are yielding just 57.2 points per game. That is third best in the nation, behind only Houston (56.4) and Alabama-Birmingham (56.4).
Florida had high expectations coming into the season before top player Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court in a game against Florida State on Dec. 12.
The Gators, who won their first three games of the season, have been sporadic since and sit sixth in the SEC. The last time out, they lost 72-69 at Mississippi State on Saturday.
The Bulldogs dominated close to the basket, outscoring the Gators 52-28 in the paint and out-rebounding Florida by a 47-26 margin.
All-SEC guard Scottie Lewis missed his second game in a row in that contest due to health and safety protocols.
Florida coach Mike White particularly was concerned with a defense that surrendered 27 points and 14 rebounds to Tolu Smith on Saturday. He knows that his Gators can’t lapse like that against the Volunteers.
White said his team was “out-physicaled” and he would “like to think in the future we’d add a little more resistance than that and play with a little more physical toughness. I just saw it against Ole Miss who is right there in the same ballpark in terms of their offensive rebounding efficiency. We didn’t play with enough physical toughness, we just didn’t.”
Leading Florida into Tuesday’s game will be Tre Mann, who averages 14 points per contest.
Colin Castleton adds 12.6 points per game and a team-best 5.7 rebounds.
–Field Level Media