Gators, SEC @ Quarter Pole

The Gator basketball team is one-fourth of the way through its SEC schedule and that part of the journey offers up both good news and bad news for Florida hoops fans.

The Good News --- Florida is 3-1 in SEC play, matching South Carolina and Alabama for the best records in the league. The Gators can also boast a pair of road wins; an overtime triumph at Tennessee and a butt-ugly 45-40 survival test at Auburn. The Gators are in the top 40 in just about every RPI type ratings system (I personally prefer KenPom.com) and has quality non-conference wins away from the O'Dome over Kansas State, Florida State and Xavier.

The Bad News --- The Gators had to rally late in the second half to beat a brutal Auburn squad Thursday night. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker drilled three-point shots down the stretch helping the Gators outscore Auburn 15-6, turning a four-point deficit into a five-point win. The Gators shot a miserable 5-for-26 from long range and at one point were 2-for-22. The Gator bench is seeing less and less playing time and that has to be a concern over the long haul. Another item for the "bad news" category has to be the realization that Florida's three SEC wins have come over teams that are a combined 2-10 in conference play.

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The fact that no team in the SEC is unbeaten at this point makes it clear that parity (mediocrity?) is the rule not the exception this season. Kentucky has the most talent, led by sterling freshmen Terrence Jones (18.5/9), Brandon Knight (17.3/3.8 3.8 assists) and Doron Lamb (13.9). However anyone watching the Wildcats against Alabama the other night saw a somewhat dysfunctional team that scowled at coach John Calipari and seemingly ignored his tirades. Still, Big Blue has to be viewed as the team to beat.

Tennessee was another top contender when the year began and it appears the Vols are beginning to figure things out in the absence of coach Bruce Pearl. Tennessee won at Georgia this week and will be without Pearl for at least four more SEC games. I say "at least" because if the NCAA were to deliver its findings against the Vols in the next few weeks it could result in further discipline against the man who admitted to breaking the rules intentionally and lying about it to NCAA investigators.

To me, a team to watch is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are just 10-7 so far, playing most of the season without standout guard Dee Bost (16/4) and part of it with stud front court additional Renardo Sidney (14.4/5.8) on the sidelines. Well Bost is back and Sidney is rounding into shape. Team those two with Ravern Johnson (18.5/3.6) and big man Kodi Augustus (12.4/8.6) and you have a really strong top four players.

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Looking ahead for the Gators, it's clear that Donovan's charges will have quite a challenge matching their 3-1 mark over the next four contests. Florida opens the stretch Saturday night when the Gators host Arkansas before consecutive road trips to Georgia and Mississippi State and a home game against Vanderbilt.

The Gators have several areas of improvement that need to be addressed if this team is to remain a contender. Seniors Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons are combining for five fewer points and 2.6 fewer rebounds than last year at this time. Florida also can't have a repeat of the Auburn game where the Gators jacked up 26 three-point shots and only 27 from inside the arc. The Gators won't win many games with Vernon Macklin and Tyus combining for fewer field goal attempts (8) than Boynton and Walker each had from three-point range (9 each).

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By the time we reach the halfway point of the SEC race, the dynamic within the league could be completely different. It's obvious that every game going forward is winnable and every one of them is losable. The key for the Gators will be to remember to get the ball inside to Macklin and Tyus as often as possible and stop the over-reliance on long range shooting that almost doomed the Gators in Auburn Thursday night. If they do that, limit turnovers and improve at the free throw line the Gators could make a run in the SEC. If not, it's back to the bubble for the fourth year in a row.


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