Huge game. Florida and ESPN are in town. The house will be packed. The buzz is back.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
If the above scenario sounds familiar, well, it is.
Last September, Florida’s visit to Neyland Stadium drummed up all the big-game atmosphere that Tennessee football fans had been missing for too long.
ESPN’s College GameDay crew, once regular guests but lately strangers, set up camp. Two wins had vaulted the Vols back in the Top 25 for the first time in four years. The energy was back. It felt like the old days — the good old days.
Tonight, Thompson-Boling Arena will be rocking. ESPN is again in the house for a 9 p.m. tipoff. The guests are Billy Donovan’s No. 8-ranked Gators, the class thus far of the SEC men’s basketball season.
In short, another UT campaign will be measured against Florida in a big-game environment. And again, home-court advantage to Tennessee.
“We’re not blind to the fact that it is a big game,’’ junior Jordan McRae said Monday, “but we’ve still got to play it as (just) another game.’’
Even though it’s not.
The national spotlight and the opponent are the same, but after that, the football and basketball dynamics go their separate ways.
The UT-Florida football clash came in mid-September. All, really, Tennessee had done to earn the attention was beat North Carolina State.
Florida won that game, 37-20. The upshot was that the Vols weren’t ready for prime time after all.
Tonight’s basketball game comes near the end of the season, not the start. Whatever the hype, it’s based on real results, not first impressions and hope.
The Vols aren’t ranked, not even close. But they’ve done more to justify any accolades they’re getting than the football team had by Sept. 15.
A little more than two weeks ago there was no reason to project ahead and envision a meaningful engagement with Florida. A home loss to Georgia on Feb. 6 pointed the season south.
Then a funny thing happened: A five-game winning streak has changed everything.
Now, beating Florida would be more than just a few laughs in a grim month. It would be an important stride in making up lost ground on an NCAA tournament bid.
“I haven’t really looked at the standings,’’ said sophomore Jarnell Stokes. “I just know if we keep winning we should be good.’’
Florida is one of four regular-season games left for the Vols. At 16-10, 8-6 SEC, they’d better, indeed, keep winning.
A win tonight would be the biggest resume-builder of all. And it doesn’t look nearly as far-fetched as it did not so very long ago.
The Vols are shooting the ball with confidence, quite a turn of events. Trae Golden was rewarded for his re-emergence Monday by being named SEC player of the week.
The team that once couldn’t make game-winning plays made a month’s worth in a four-overtime win at Texas A&M on Saturday, a showcase of resilience.
“One of the things that’s overlooked,’’ said UT coach Cuonzo Martin, “(is) you’re fighting to be in the NCAA tournament and fighting to win your league, and all those things we talk about.
“But the thing I give our guys the most credit for is continuing to compete and not giving up. And that’s a hard thing to do when you’re struggling.’’
The struggling has subsided. UT basketball is fun again — and fun to watch.
Make no mistake, a lot of people will be watching tonight.
They’ll be watching Florida for any cracks in what could be a No. 1 seed-worthy NCAA tournament resume.
But they’ll be watching Tennessee, too. The Vols have done their part to make this a legitimate big game.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.