Cuonzo Martin coaches the way he was coached when he was a star for Gene Keady at Purdue. Keady demanded tough, physical man-to-man defense, efficient rebounding and an inside-out offense that forced defenses to pick and choose their poison. The Tennessee (12-6, 3-2 SEC) team that Martin brings to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center today (4 p.m., ESPN) to face the 6th-ranked Florida Gators (16-2, 5-0 SEC) is about as close to a mirror image of those Gene Keady-coached teams as you’re going to find. In addition to the smothering defense – the Vols only give up 63.3 points per game – Tennessee has the very physical inside force of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, a pair of 6-8, 260-pounders, who require most teams to double down, and the outside presence of Jordan McRae, who, when he’s hot is one of the nation’s most deadly 3-point shooters.
Last season in Knoxville Stokes cleaned up on the boards (14 rebounds) while McRae wore the Gators out for 27 points as Tennessee improved to 3-0 against Florida since Martin became the head coach. The Vols did it last year without Maymon, who missed the entire season with an injury. He’s back this year, which will make it that much more difficult for the Gators to deal with McRae, who is coming off a season-best 34 points against Arkansas Tuesday night. Against the Razorbacks, McRae hit 4-8 from the 3-point line and got to the foul line 14 times where he converted 12.
“McRae is really as good a scorer as there is in this league,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Friday afternoon after the Gators got in a late practice after a delayed return to Gainesville following their 68-62 Thursday night win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Mechanical problems with their plane forced the Gators to stay overnight and they didn’t get back to Gainesville until just before noon Friday.
No doubt a good bit of Friday’s practice was spent trying to figure out ways to neutralize McRae. If he gets hot and starts nailing threes, it takes away help that might be needed on the interior to stop Stokes (13.4 points, 9.7 rebounds) and Maymon (11.2 points, 8.2 rebounds).
But how do you stop McRae? At 6-6 he’s as tough a matchup as it gets in the SEC. Go with a small defender and he shoots over the top. McRae will put the ball on the deck and go around a bigger defender who lacks quickness. Go zone and he’ll keep moving until he finds an opening on the perimeter.
McRae is averaging 19.2 points per game and Donovan says he can put points on the board in a variety of methods.
“He’s a very efficient scorer because he can do it a lot of different ways,” Donovan said. “He’s terrific in transition; he shoots threes; he can make mid-range jump shots; he can post up some. There is really not an area of the floor where he has the ball that he’s not a threat to score.”
To slow McRae down, Donovan is likely to go with a defense by committee approach. The Gators have been effective shutting opponents down in a 1-3-1 zone when they put long, athletic guys on the wing and run a quick guy on the baseline. Florida’s man-to-man defense has allowed only one team (Arkansas) in the last eight to score more than 62 points. For the season, the Gators are giving up only 59.8 per game.
In explaining how to defend McRae, Donovan said, “You’ve really got to do a good job of understanding different areas of the floor where you have to understand where help has to come from. I don’t think with a guy like him that you do it with one guy. It’s got to be a collective effort.”
The collective approach worked well Thursday night against Alabama point guard Trevor Releford, who is very much in the mix for SEC Player of the Year. Releford came into the game with Florida averaging more than 17 a game. He scored 14 but only two after the half.
NO SURPRISES: Tennessee will be as physical a team as the Gators will face during the regular season. Their unique style of hand-to-hand combat defense and inside-out game on the offensive end is a bit different than the Gators have seen in SEC play this year, but Donovan says the Gators are well prepared, largely due to a demanding non-conference schedule.
“We played Richmond that had kind of a Princeton style to it,” Donovan said. “We’ve played some teams that really tried to power the ball inside like Kansas. We went against a swing offense in Wisconsin. We’ve gone against some pressing styles of play in playing against Arkansas. There really probably hasn’t been too much in style of play that our guys haven’t faced this year. You learn from those past experiences playing against different styles.”
The Gators have seen plenty of zone in the last two games. Auburn went mostly zone but switched defenses nearly every possession. Alabama played almost exclusively zone. In both games, the Gators adjusted.
Donovan expects the Gators will adjust well to whatever Tennessee throws at them.
“Auburn played the game where they changed and switched defenses a lot,” Donovan said. “Alabama made a decision they were going to play all zone last night. We’ve gone against those things before so I think our guys were equipped to handle it.”
GAME NOTES: The Gators have lost 11 times to Tennessee when they have been ranked in the top 25 and the Vols have been unranked. Tennessee owns eight wins over Florida when the Gators are in the top 10 … With four points, Casey Prather will have scored more points this season than he did in his three previous seasons at Florida combined … Prather leads the Gators in shooting at 61.1%. Michael Frazier is the leading 3-point shooter at 45.4%. Frazier is also an 87.5% free throw shooter, best on the team … Florida has won 10 straight games and has a 25-game home court winning streak.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
TENNESSEE (12-6, 3-2 SEC): Antonio Barton (6-2, 178, SR); Jordan McRae (6-6, 185, SR); Josh Richardson (6-6, 190, JR); Jeronne Maymon (6-8, 260, SR); Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 260, JR)
FLORIDA (16-2, 5-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)