Consider Bruce Pearl convinced. Coming into Saturday’s game at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the Tennessee coach knew the Florida Gators were the best team in the Southeastern Conference. By the time the Gators were through dismantling the Vols, Pearl had come to a completely different conclusion.
He not only thought the number one ranked Gators were the best team in the SEC but probably the best team in the entire country.
“They’re even better than they were last year,” said Pearl as he walked out of the media room following Florida’s 94-78 SEC win over the Vols before a rowdy crowd of 12,222. “They’re a complete team. They’re really impressive.”
Pearl probably understands the strengths and weaknesses of the Florida Gators as well or better than any coach in the country. Last year he came up with a pair of game plans that handed the Gators two of their six losses, but all those losses came before March. All those losses were before the Gators finally figured out what it takes to win big games. All those losses were before the Gators won the NCAA championship.
Pearl’s game plan Saturday was quite different than the two he masterminded last year. Last year he knew there were areas that he could exploit. Saturday he was facing an experienced Florida team that is trying to repeat last year’s run to the NCAA championship.
“Those kids came back with a mission,” he said.
The Gators played like a team on a mission Saturday, particularly in the first half when they systematically took the Vols apart. Tennessee had neither the height or the experience to make a dent in the relentless Gators who were so dominant they had a 26-6 rebounding edge and a 50-24 lead at the half.
With 6-10 Al Horford leading the way with a career-high 22 points to go with 13 rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and a steal, the Gators placed five players in double figures, shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from the three-point stripe as they rolled to their fourteenth straight win. The Gators (21-2) are now 8-0 in the SEC, the best start in school history, and they have a two-game cushion on second place Kentucky in the SEC East Division.
Florida bolted out to a 9-0 lead that expanded to 17 (26-9) midway through the first half and the Gators had their first 20-point lead of the game at the 7:00 mark on a Chris Richard layup. It was one of the most impressive halves of basketball the Gators have played this year.
“That might be our best half this year,” said Horford, who combined with Joakim Noah for 25 points and 10 rebounds in the first half.
Horford admitted the Gators came out of the gate even more determined than usual and the reason was those two losses to Tennessee last year.
“We were trying to just think about this game, but yeah, we thought about what happened last year,” he said. “Anytime you lose to a team twice, that’s natural. We wanted this one.”
Noah added, “When you play a team that beat you twice you’re going to come out with an edge.”
Last year, the Gators couldn’t sustain that edge in the closing moments of two games with Tennessee and they lost. Saturday the Gators didn’t give the Vols a chance. Florida took complete control of the game in the first half and it was cruise control in the final 20 minutes. The Vols played hard, chipping as many as 11 points off the Florida lead on a couple of occasions, but each time the Vols got within 15 points, the Gators put on a little spurt to keep the lead at a comfortable margin.
In the games leading up to their 11-game march to the NCAA championship last year, the Gators were still trying to figure things out. They were vulnerable late in games because they were inexperienced and lacked the killer instinct. Now they have the experience and as Pearl found out early on Saturday, they definitely have the killer instinct.
“They became a great team at the end last year,” he said. “Now, I’d have to say they’re definitely a lot better at this point than they were last year. They understand what they’re doing. They’ve figured out how to win the close games. They do some things better than anyone else in the country. They’ve got good enough size and they’ve got such a feel for each other. They’re so unselfish. They’ve got enough weapons to win it again.”
The chief weapon Saturday was Horford. He dunked, he shot jumpers, he rebounded and he played great defense. He not only was a presence in the middle, but he played tremendous defense on the perimeter. Because the Vols were often playing with four guards on the court at the same time, Horford was often defending out at the three-point line. With 4:46 remaining in the game, The Vols’ 6-4 Dane Bradshaw thought he had an open three-pointer but Horford was quick enough to stay with him and blocked his shot 22 feet from the basket.
Not only was Horford the most physically dominant player Saturday, he also showed why Donovan says he has the highest basketball IQ of any player he’s coached at Florida.
With 2:12 left in the first half, Florida’s Dan Werner committed a foul which sent the Vols to the foul line. JaJuan Smith stepped to the line and knocked down the first free throw but Horford got the attention of the officials and pointed out that Smith, a 74 percent shooter from the line, wasn’t the player that was fouled. The officials called time out, checked the replay monitors, and discovered that Josh Tabb, a 25 percent foul shooter, was the player that had been fouled. The officials wiped off the free throw by Smith and sent Tabb to the line where he missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Horford’s performance impressed his teammates, too. Point guard Taurean Green said he hasn’t seen better big men than Florida’s two inside guys.
“He [Horford] rebounds, he scores, he plays great defense,” said Green. “He was a monster out there tonight. He and Jo [Noah] are the best two big men in the country.”
Donovan said it’s “mindboggling” that Horford isn’t on the watch list for the Wooden Award, the trophy given at the end of the year to the nation’s best player.
“Al Horford is one of the finest big men in the country,” Donovan said.
And that’s just one of the reasons why Pearl says he thinks the Gators will wind up in Atlanta for the Final Four.
“They’ve got everything,” he said. “There’s no question they are a much better team this year. Much better. Because the way they play together, they’re the best team in the country. I don’t know who’s going to beat them.”
GAME NOTES: In addition to Horford, Noah (19), Green (15), Walter Hodge (12) and Brewer (12) scored in double figures for Florida … Florida leads the nation in shooting. Saturday the Gators were 30-54 from the field, 55.6 percent, and 9-19 from the three-point line (47.4 percent) … Tennessee normally launches 25 three-pointers per game. The Gators kept the Vols away from the three-point stripe. Tennessee only shot eight three-pointers in the first half and 19 for the game (made seven for 36.8 percent shooting) … The Gators will travel to Georgia Wednesday night to begin the second half of their SEC schedule … Tennessee, which dropped to 15-8 overall, needs some second half wins to get off the NCAA bubble. The Vols need at least five more wins before the SEC Tournament to feel safe … Tennessee played once again without leading scorer Chris Lofton, who missed his fourth straight game since suffering a high ankle sprain … Florida’s 14-game winning streak is tied for the third longest in school history … Florida signees Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons of Lake Howell High School were at the game.