Alabama Basketball Has Big Challenge

Alabama senior Andrew Steele remembers what it was like to play Florida in Gainesville, but he's excited about the opportunity to take on the nationally-ranked Gators Saturday. "They are 12-3 and we're 11-4, so we're not going in there feeling like we're in over our heads," Steele said. "We're going in thinking that we can win."

The last time Alabama went to Florida, in 2011, the Tide and Gators were tied 30-30 at halftime and with 15 minutes to play only a point separated the two teams. But Florida closed out with a big run and a 78-51 decision.

As Andrew Steele said, this year Alabama is a game behind Florida in SEC play. The Gators are 12-3 in the conference and 22-5 overall. Bama is 11-4 in the league, 19-9 overall. Florida is ranked sixth in the nation in one poll and eighth in another. Tipoff Saturday in Gainesville is at noon EST (11 a.m. central time) with television coverage by ESPN.

The clock is quickly running down on SEC play. In addition to Florida and Alabama, Kentucky (even with Bama at 11-4) and Ole Miss (10-5) have those favored top four spots with the SEC Tournament beginning in less than two weeks. Tennessee and Missouri at just behind at 9-6.

Two games remain after Saturday. The Crimson Tide will play at Ole Miss Tuesday and finish at home against Georgia a week from Saturday, March 9.

Alabama Coach Anthony Grant was a longtime assistant coach under Florida's Billy Donovan. Grant was with Donovan at Florida for 10 years (1996-2006), the last five as associate head coach. Donovan has been outstanding in his term as head coach of the Gators, including having Florida ranked eighth in the nation this year. The Gators have reached the 20-win mark for the 15th consecutive year under Donovan. Prior to his arrival, Florida had only five 20-win seasons in its history.

Alabama will be going for its 20th win of the season, which would mark the third consecutive season for the Tide to reach that plateau. The last three-year stretch of 20-or-more wins was under Wimp Sanderson in 1990, 1991, and 1992.

Bama holds a 73-60 edge in the all-time series against Florida, but the Gators have been gaining quickly. Florida is 17-5 against Alabama under Donovan, including five straight. The Gators have won 16 of the last 19 contests against the Tide.

At Alabama, Grant is 0-4 against his former mentor, but the Tide coach dismisses that factor. "It's our ball club against their ball club," he said. "We're looking forward to going on the road and playing a team the caliber of Florida.

"We're 15 games into our conference schedule and tied for second in the league. We talk about having our destiny in our hands."

Bad news for Alabama comes in bunches. For one thing, the Gators are undefeated at home this year, and most of the wins have been routs. Also in Florida's favor is that the Gators are getting three top players back from injury for Saturday's game. Forward Will Yeguete missed the past six games and all but one minute of a seventh, and it is in that span the Gators had their only SEC losses. Freshman sharp-shooter Michael Frazier missed the last Florida game, a loss at Tennessee, with a concussion, but has been cleared to play Saturday. Casey Prather, a junior forward, suffered a cut that required several stitches against the Vols, but he, too, has been cleared.

Grant pointed out that Florida returns a lot of veterans and that those returning players have had a lot of success. "They are very good, very balanced," he said.

Much is made of Alabama's defense, and rightfully so, but for the first time this year Bama will be going up against a higher-ranked defense. Bama allows 58.2 points per game, which is excellent, but which is also second in the league to Florida's phenomenal 53.5 points per game. The Gators have a scoring margin of 19.6 points per game compared to Bama's 5.3. Florida averages 73.1 ppg, Alabama 63.5. In a game that is mostly about shooting, Florida leads the league in field goal percentage (48.9) and in defense against field goals (allowing 37.5).

Grant said, "It's going to be about what we can do on defense. We have to be locked in on what we do defensively.

"Offensively, we have to take care of the basketball and take quality shots."

In recent games, Alabama has been led by junior guard Trevor Releford, who needs only four points to become the 36th player in Bama basketball history to record 1,200 points in a career.

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