Florida is riding a school-record 24-game winning streak and is a virtual lock to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but coach Billy Donovan says none of that is indicative of any sort of dominance.
After an up-and-down performance in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, Donovan is hoping the top-ranked Gators come out with a bit more energy in Saturday’s semifinal matchup with surging Tennessee.
Florida (30-2) has won its last four by an average of 21.5 points after beating Missouri 72-49 on Friday, but it needed to pull away in the second half after being tied at the break. That, along with some other close calls during their perfect run through SEC play, is enough for Donovan to be a bit humble when describing the Gators’ season.
"I think when a team’s ranked No. 1 in the country, goes 18-0 in the SEC regular season and you have not laid eyes on us, you would sit there and say, ‘Geez, they must be blowing everybody out. No one must come close to these guys,’" Donovan said. "But if you want to go through the scores of our games in the SEC, they have all been right there.
"Sometimes if you watched our team play, we maybe don’t play or look as dominant as our record does."
Florida outscored Missouri 34-13 over the final 10:06 to take control, as Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier finished with 15 points apiece. Wilbekin (5 for 6) and Frazier (5 for 7) helped the Gators go 12 of 21 from 3-point range.
The vast Georgia Dome has been known to create a challenging shooting background, but Wilbekin said that’s not an issue for Florida.
"It’s just another gym, to be honest," he said. "If the first one goes in, it’s easier. You have more confidence. But we just try not to think about that and shoot with confidence every time."
Tennessee (21-11) had won three straight meetings coming into this season, but the Gators won 67-41 on Jan. 25 behind 17 points from Frazier and 67-58 on Feb. 11 as Wilbekin scored 21.
The Volunteers are likely to get consideration for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, and a victory over Florida could secure that spot. They beat South Carolina 59-44 in Friday’s quarterfinals and have not trailed at any moment during a five-game winning streak.
Tennessee has been especially solid over its last four, winning by an average of 27.0 points and holding opponents to 45.3 per game.
Jarnell Stokes (season high-tying 22 points) and Jordan McRae (14) were the only players for either team to score in double figures Friday, with Stokes adding 15 rebounds.
”We didn’t come to Atlanta to win one game,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. ”We came to win the tournament. I told my guys if you’re not coming to win the tournament, don’t get on the bus.”
Stokes hit 13 of 20 from the field in the two meetings with Florida, finishing with 16 points and 10 boards in the first and 20 points and 11 rebounds in the second.
Tennessee hasn’t played for the SEC title since 2009, while the Gators have appeared in two of the last three tournament finals.