ATLANTA — If you want to feel better about Tennessee’s chances against No. 1 Florida on Saturday, talk to Frank Martin.
The South Carolina coach all but installed Tennessee as the favorite in an SEC tournament semifinal match-up at the Georgia Dome.
And he was thinking along those lines before Tennessee defeated the Gamecocks, 59-44, in the tournament quarterfinals Friday.
“I think (the Vols) are playing better than anyone in our league right now, and I think Florida is real good,” Martin said.
“If you would have said to me, ‘Frank, what team would you rather not play in the tournament?’ I would have said, ‘Tennessee.’ “
His assessment is a testament to Tennessee’s recent ascent from mediocrity. Once 16-11, the Vols have won five consecutive games by an average of 23 points.
They surely have played their way into the NCAA tournament. They also have put themselves in position to see how they now stack up against a surefire No. 1 seed.
Florida (30-2) stretched its winning streak to 19 games against SEC teams by pulling away from Missouri in the second half for a 72-49 victory in another quarterfinal game Friday. Neither the outcome nor the catalyst was surprising.
The Gators ran off 12 consecutive points to take a 50-36 lead with 7:01 to play. SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin was prominent in the decisive surge, just as he was in Florida’s two regular-season victories over the Vols.
Wilbekin contributed two 3-pointers and a pair of steals in that telling three-minutes stretch. He finished with 15 points, four steals, two assists and no turnovers.
Game-changing plays have become routine for Wilbekin. Tennessee knows all about that.
He helped press the Vols into submission in a 67-41 Florida victory in Gainesville in late January. In the rematch at Thompson-Boling Arena, he had 22 points and six assists and nailed a pivotal 3-point shot down the stretch in a 67-58 victory.
“I thought that was the key to the game,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday. “The last three or four minutes of that game at home, I thought he took over the game.
“We couldn’t maximize at that particular position. He won that battle. I thought everywhere else we were solid. But at that position, he won the battle.”
Wilbekin’s scoring often comes at the most crucial times. His defense comes all game long.
And it’s defense that first comes to mind when exploring the possibilities of the Vols pulling off what would be a historical upset.
Defense hasn’t been a problem for the Vols lately. South Carolina made only 27.1 percent of its shots; in the last four games, UT opponents have shot 29.7 percent.
Dealing with Florida’s defense could be a different matter.
UT guards Antonio Barton and Jordan McRae each had four turnovers against the Gamecocks. The Gators thrive on such carelessness.
“Florida is coming after you,” Frank Martin said. “They’re relentless with their pressure. If Tennessee’s guards handle Florida’s pressure, their inside play can create a problem for Florida.”
That’s Jarnell Stokes’ cue. Stokes, who had 22 points and 15 rebounds against South Carolina, was almost as productive against Florida, totaling 36 points and 21 rebounds in two games.
Tennessee has Stokes inside. Florida has Wilbekin outside. And both teams have momentum.
“It’s going to be a heckuva match-up,” Frank Martin said.