Vols have chance to live up to motto and 'Make a Statement' against Florida

Win streak adds meaning to Florida game

For a team that touted its intentions to “Make a Statement” as its season motto, the day has arrived.

That statement? Now would be a good time to make it.

Lugging around an 11-10 record and a 3-6 SEC mark three weeks ago, Tennessee men’s basketball has reeled off five straight league wins. Suddenly the Vols (16-10, 8-6) are hot. Suddenly the Vols are drawing the gaze of national pundits.

Suddenly the showdown today (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.) with No. 8 Florida at Thompson-Boling Arena is certifiably a big game.

“This is the most important ballgame on our schedule at this point,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. “After this, we’ll look forward to the next game. I’ve never been a guy (to say) it’s a must-win game, but you’ve got to win the game.”

Various theories have explained Tennessee’s resurgence — deft point guard play from junior Trae Golden, sophomore Jarnell Stokes playing like the NBA prospect he was touted to be, a switch to four-guard sets enabling more up-tempo play and better offensive spacing.

According to multiple

members of the team, though, there is an additional, unquantifiable cause.

“We’re more of a brotherhood, definitely,” sophomore guard Josh Richardson said Monday.

“We’ve been holding each other accountable,” added fellow guard Jordan McRae, a junior.

There was no lack of criticism for the Vols’ early season woes. Twitter spouted off. Message boards spewed. They heard it. Even if they say they didn’t.

As the losses mounted, including five by six points or less, relations grew strained. Richardson explained that through the troubles, “There were some guys that really couldn’t take criticism from other guys on the team.”

No details were offered, but those strifes are “not a problem anymore,” according to Richardson.

Martin has taken notice. Standing on a Reed Arena court covered with four overtimes worth of sweat following last Saturday’s 93-85 win at Texas A&M, he was asked about the growing family atmosphere his players claim to be experiencing.

“I see it,” Martin said. “You can’t control the other stuff. All you do is lock-in on those other guys in the locker room. Those are the ones you’re doing battle with. That’s what my program is built on.”

Brothers, teammates, whatever — the Vols will need to play as one to beat the eighth-ranked Gators. Sitting atop the SEC at 12-2 and 22-4 overall, Florida averages 74.0 points in league games while allowing just 53.4.

But it’s not all sunny. The Gators will be without freshman guard Michael Frazier II (concussion) and junior forward Will Yeguete (knee), coach Billy Donovan confirmed Monday. The lineup is still bolstered by such names as Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Patric Murphy and Mike Rosario, but Donovan will need some reserves, likely Braxton Ogbueze and Dillon Graham, to step into a rotation that’s been whittled to six regulars.

“Six guys is not enough to go to Knoxville with,” Donovan told The Gainesville Sun.

Martin made it clear, however, that even with a shortened bench, Florida is still Florida.

“You’re talking about a potential Final Four team coming in — a team that you feel like you can beat and you have a great opportunity to continue to add to your NCAA profile as an NCAA tournament team,”

In an updated ranking provided to the News Sentinel by ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi, Tennessee is the No. 13 team resting outside the current projected tournament field.

Given where they’ve been, that alone, is an accomplishment.

“(Not giving up) is a hard thing to do when you’re struggling,” Martin said. “You can have different kinds of emotion in the locker room, with some guys going this way, other guys going the other way. But these guys stuck together and I give them the utmost credit for that.”

At the conclusion of every UT practice since his hiring, Martin blares his whistle and hollers, “Stack it up!” The team convenes at midcourt for a final message. After, all hands converge in the huddle and a different motto — “Together we attack!” — fills the air.

Over the past three weeks, the message has resonated.

“For a while, we were just saying it because he told us to,” McRae said. “But now we’re starting to realize what it means. We don’t have a LeBron or a Kobe on this team. If we want to win games, we have to do it together.”

Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.

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Comments » 7

brod writes:

no pressure. all about match-ups.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

We may need a little better ball control. I.E. No slip shod passes. I.E. No waiting for the traps to move to the ball. The little things against(probably) a quicker Florida team. Josh needs to play his best defense without any wasted fouls. Dang they all need to play their best defense against a team that has not lost a lot of games. BUT the gators CAN be beat.(forgive the grammer)

John_10065 writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

We may need a little better ball control. I.E. No slip shod passes. I.E. No waiting for the traps to move to the ball. The little things against(probably) a quicker Florida team. Josh needs to play his best defense without any wasted fouls. Dang they all need to play their best defense against a team that has not lost a lot of games. BUT the gators CAN be beat.(forgive the grammer)

I rank the UF loss at Arizona one of the worst of the year. I couldn't believe what I watched in those last 3 minutes. They're prone to mental lapses just like anyone else.

I just hope the guys are recharged after a 3 half game and the short end of the week.

If they come out like they did in the first half of the A&M game, it might be a long quiet night in Knoxville. I don't think we can afford to go down double digits early with UF. They have a lot of talent on the court even with the shortened bench.

But they are beatable and we have enough tools to do it including Thomson-Bowling Arena and the faithful in the stands!

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to John_10065:

I rank the UF loss at Arizona one of the worst of the year. I couldn't believe what I watched in those last 3 minutes. They're prone to mental lapses just like anyone else.

I just hope the guys are recharged after a 3 half game and the short end of the week.

If they come out like they did in the first half of the A&M game, it might be a long quiet night in Knoxville. I don't think we can afford to go down double digits early with UF. They have a lot of talent on the court even with the shortened bench.

But they are beatable and we have enough tools to do it including Thomson-Bowling Arena and the faithful in the stands!

I haven't seen Arizona this year but I've heard they have some talent of their own.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to John_10065:

I rank the UF loss at Arizona one of the worst of the year. I couldn't believe what I watched in those last 3 minutes. They're prone to mental lapses just like anyone else.

I just hope the guys are recharged after a 3 half game and the short end of the week.

If they come out like they did in the first half of the A&M game, it might be a long quiet night in Knoxville. I don't think we can afford to go down double digits early with UF. They have a lot of talent on the court even with the shortened bench.

But they are beatable and we have enough tools to do it including Thomson-Bowling Arena and the faithful in the stands!

Good comment. Sometimes the Gators seem to fall in love with the outside shot. If it isn't falling and they aren't turning the other team over for run-outs, they can be beaten. Their comparative lack of depth inside should be huge against the Vols. Of course, UT doesn't have all that much depth inside, either, and if Jarnell draws a couple of quick fouls, the Vols could be in trouble. This would be a GREAT time for Kenny Hall to be the player he HAS to be if the Vols are to reach their full potential.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Good comment. Sometimes the Gators seem to fall in love with the outside shot. If it isn't falling and they aren't turning the other team over for run-outs, they can be beaten. Their comparative lack of depth inside should be huge against the Vols. Of course, UT doesn't have all that much depth inside, either, and if Jarnell draws a couple of quick fouls, the Vols could be in trouble. This would be a GREAT time for Kenny Hall to be the player he HAS to be if the Vols are to reach their full potential.

Good point about Stokes and especially Hall. He and Makan just have not delivered lately . But of course part of that is they haven't had much time on the floor. If one of those two can come in and give Stokes relief or even play along side Stokes a bit we'd be in much better shape tonight.imho

At the same time a great effort by Moore or Chievous would help there as well. We can't give florida's guards easy rebounds and quick passes down the court.
A double double by McRae would be nice.lol HECK LET's JUST HAVE THEM ALL WITH DOUBLE DIGIT REBOUNDS!!!!

ok ok I'm alright now.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to mocsandvolsfan:

Good point about Stokes and especially Hall. He and Makan just have not delivered lately . But of course part of that is they haven't had much time on the floor. If one of those two can come in and give Stokes relief or even play along side Stokes a bit we'd be in much better shape tonight.imho

At the same time a great effort by Moore or Chievous would help there as well. We can't give florida's guards easy rebounds and quick passes down the court.
A double double by McRae would be nice.lol HECK LET's JUST HAVE THEM ALL WITH DOUBLE DIGIT REBOUNDS!!!!

ok ok I'm alright now.

Amen, brother! Agree with all. GO VOLS!!!

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