The Gators’ gauntlet of games continues against the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Wednesday night.
The matchup marks the first time Florida will play back-to-back top-five opponents in 55 years and just the second time in program history. Florida’s first game in the two-game series ended in defeat against the then-No.5 Kansas State Wildcats.
The Florida Gators (12-9, 5-3 SEC) will look to upset the Volunteers (18-3, 7-1 SEC) in the O’Dome and will need to find ways to score against Tennessee’s elite defense.
The Volunteers suffocate teams defensively and give up the least points per game in the country, according to ESPN. They’ve held teams to 34.5% from the field and 22% from deep this season — which both rank best in the nation.
Tennessee also ranks first in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
The Volunteers' defense will present several challenges for Florida’s offense, said Florida head coach Todd Golden. Tennessee excels at not allowing easy shots, he said.
“You think you’re going to get an open shot, and they do a great job closing out on your 3-point shooters,” Golden said.
Tennessee features a balanced offensive attack — four of UT’s five starters average double-figure points.
Volunteers senior guard Santiago Vescovi leads the team in scoring with 12.2 points per game. Most of his shots come from beyond the arc; 130 of his 179 shots were taken from 3-point range. Vescovi shoots 35.4% from deep.
The Gators will also have to worry about Tennessee senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua. The 6-foot-9-inch forward averages 11 points per game on an efficient 59.7% clip.
Nkamhoua scored 27 points and finished 12-15 in his last game against the No. 10 Texas Longhorns.
Two of the biggest challenges for Florida’s defense will be keeping the Volunteers in front of them and keeping UT off the glass, Golden said. UF will need to limit Tennessee’s second-chance points and turn defensive rebounds into transition points, he said.
The Gators will look to get graduate student forward Colin Castleton going early in the game, Golden said. Castleton scored just two points in the first half against Kansas State.
Golden hopes he can take advantage of teams who double-team Castleton to get more open looks from other players, he said.
“If you can make teams pay for the way they guard, then that would open up more for Colin in the first half specifically,” Golden said.
Florida was held to 16 points in the first half of its last bout against the top-five Wildcats. UF shot 31% from the field and 18.2% from 3-point range against KSU.
Florida will need sophomore forward Alex Fudge to get back into a groove against Tennessee, Golden said. Fudge missed one game and played 14 minutes against Kansas State after he suffered a head injury against Mississippi State Jan. 21.
Fudge finished with two points and two turnovers in his return to action Saturday. While Golden thought Fudge didn’t play up to his potential, he commended his aggression and desire to come back and help the team win, Golden said.
Wednesday’s game will be emotional for senior center Jason Jitoboh, the big man said. Jitoboh suffered an eye injury after being poked in the eye against Tennessee Jan. 26, 2022. He missed the remainder of the 2021-22 season but made his return for the current season.
“I just prepare for it like it's another game, but just knowing that there's something I need to prove to myself,” Jitoboh said.
The mental and physical toughness Jitoboh consistently shows has been impressive to see, Golden said. The senior center has been a huge piece for UF, and being part of a team has been important for Jitoboh, Golden said.
Florida’s game against the Volunteers will tip off at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the O’Dome. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Contact Jackson Reyes at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.
Jackson Reyes is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and tweeting about Caleb Williams.