By Jimmy Hyams
Mike White thinks Tennessee is terrific.
Florida’s coach said after the Vols 73-61 victory Saturday that the Vols’ defense is terrific, that point guard Jordan Bone is terrific, that their offense is terrific.
And yet, White acknowledged, Tennessee wasn’t at its best against the Gators.
No, the Vols weren’t. But that just speaks to how good Tennessee is.
Not at its best, Tennessee took down Florida for the second time this season. UT had bursts of brilliance and moments of mediocrity. The Vols led 32-16 with less than five minutes left in the first half, but a 14-4 Florida run cut it to 36-30 at the break.
Tennessee went up by 19 in the second half (69-50) before wobbling to the finish line in a game that was never in doubt before a sellout crowd of 22,261.
Tennessee has now won a school-record 18 games in a row. It is 10-0 in the SEC for only the second time ever (the 1976-77 team won its first 10 before losing). It has won 22 in a row at home. It has won a program-record 14 consecutive SEC regular-season games, dating to last season.
Of course, Vols coach Rick Barnes isn’t paying any attention to records set or streaks broken. He’s worried about one thing: improvement.
“I’m always looking at ways to get better,’’ Barnes said.
White described Tennessee as tough, disciplined and strong.
Those are three components that will serve the team well in the postseason.
But Saturday night, Barnes found an area that didn’t suit him. Florida had 15 offensive rebounds to Tennessee’s eight. The Vols have allowed the last two opponents to rack up 29 offensive rebounds.
Grant Williams, who led UT with 16 points against Tennessee, admits that is too many.
But while Barnes can find warts after each win, Williams is enjoying the ride.
“Myself, I think it’s cool,’’ Williams said of UT’s run. “I don’t hang too much of my hat on it, but it’s good to know. I think we’re on an 18-game win streak or something like that, and 10 (in a row) in the SEC, which is pretty cool. And making history, it’s nice to make history.
“But we don’t want to just stop there. If you start focusing on that too much and focus on just the wins, you lose track of having fun, you lose track of understanding that every single night you’re playing against a talented team.’’
While Tennessee’s run has been historic, it has featured a few blips. The Vols have had stretches against Alabama and Vanderbilt and South Carolina and Missouri and Florida where it didn’t look like the No. 1 team in the country.
But it has also had stretches where it has looked dang near unbeatable.
One reason for that is point guard Jordan Bone, one of the nation’s most improved players. He has hiked his scoring average from 7.3 points per game to 13.4, his shooting from 39 percent to 46 percent. He leads the SEC in assists and is on pace to set a school record for assists-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s the best point guard in the league,’’ White said. “Why? Because he’s leading the No. 1 team in the country.’’
White praised Bones’ cutting, ball-handling, use of ball screens and the fact he “plays with a chip on his shoulder.’’
After saying recently that Bone was ONE of the best point guards in the country, Williams corrected himself Saturday night: “He’s the best point guard in the country. It’s incredible.’’
Bone isn’t the only one who has been incredible. Sixth man Jordan Bowden has been exceptional in SEC play and even had a left-handed put-back dunk that brought the house down and had Williams buzzing.
“I was shocked,’’ Williams said. “I was really puzzled at first. Me and Bone ran by each other and said, `What just happened?’ Because he dunked with his left hand. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him dunk with his left hand. I was shocked. I’m still shocked.’’
Many are shocked to see that No. 1 beside Tennessee’s name. They’re shocked that the Vols are 22-1, shocked that at this moment, UT is the No. 2 No. 1 seed, according to the NCAA selection committee.
Whether Tennessee remains in that spot remains to be seen.
But the ride has been fun.
Just ask Grant Williams.