The Gators (17-9, 8-5 SEC) can get right back in the thick of NCAA Tournament talk Saturday when they visit a South Carolina (21-5, 8-5 SEC) team that has lost its last two games and three of its last five. While South Carolina basically needs only two more wins to assure itself an invitation to the big dance in March, the Gators still have work to do. Florida needs two more wins to assure a winning SEC record but three wins in its final five games would almost certainly give the Gators a good enough record to make the tournament.
The Gators are coming off a crucial road win over Georgia. This wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but the Gators got the job done behind freshman KeVaughn Allen, who scored 14 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. South Carolina, which was blasted by Kentucky last Saturday, couldn’t shake the big loss hangover Tuesday night and dropped its second straight at SEC bottom feeder Missouri.
There are three critical matchups in this game: Dorian Finney-Smith vs. Michael Carrera; John Egbunu vs. Laimonas Chatkevicius; and Allen vs. Sindarius Thornwell.
Finney-Smith (15.1 points, 8.1 rebounds) has a size advantage (6-8 to 6-5) over Carrera (14.6 points 7.4 rebounds), but Carrera is an overachiever who is one of the toughest players in the league. After playing lights out recently, Finney-Smith has gone 0-8 from the 3-point line recently. If he can hit his shots behind the arc, he can draw Carrera away from the basket where he’s the Gamecocks’ best rebounder.
Chatkevicius is an excellent position defender who doesn’t block many shots but is at his best keeping opposing bigs out of the lane. If Egbunu (10.8 points, 6.6 rebounds) can establish position, on the right side of the lane he could have a big game.
Allen (11.9 points per game) is one of the SEC’s top freshmen but he will be going against a taller (Thornwell is 6-5, 215) and more physical defender so he will have to win his battle by putting the ball on the deck and getting to the rim. Allen can afford to play off Thornwell, who’s shooting less than 30% from the 3-point line, to try to keep the big guard from getting into the lane where he’s very good at drawing contact.
Bottom line: The Gamecocks have been exposed the last two games but they’re a tough out (13-4) at home. Florida has to come up with a better performance from the 3-point line (5-25 against Georgia) and will have to hit at least 70% from the foul line (Gators were 16-27 against Georgia) if they hope to come away with a win.
SEC MEN’S BASKETBALL STANDINGS
1. Kentucky (20-6, 10-3 SEC)
2. LSU (16-10, 9-4 SEC)
T3. South Carolina (21-5, 8-5 SEC)
T3. Texas A&M (19-7, 8-5 SEC)
T3. FLORIDA (17-9, 8-5 SEC)
T6. Alabama (16-9, 7-6 SEC)
T6. Vanderbilt (15-11, 7-6 SEC)
T6. Georgia (14-10, 7-6 SEC)
9. Ole Miss (16-10, 6-7 SEC)
T10. Tennessee (12-14, 5-8 SEC)
T10. Arkansas (12-14, 5-8 SEC)
T12. Mississippi State (11-14, 4-9 SEC)
T12. Auburn (10-15, 4-9 SEC)
14. Missouri (10-16, 3-10 SEC)
Thursday’s game: Kentucky 80, Tennessee 70
Saturday’s games: FLORIDA at South Carolina; Georgia at Vanderbilt; Mississippi State at Alabama; Ole Miss at Auburn; LSU at Tennessee; Kentucky at Texas A&M; Missouri at Arkansas
GATORS TAKE OUT VANDERBILT
Florida’s women’s basketball team earned its 20th win of the season Thursday night at the O-Dome with a 79-67 win over Vanderbilt (15-11, 4-9 SEC), breaking a two-game losing streak. Freshman Eleanna Christinaki led the way with 22 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots and 2 steals. She was backed up by Haley Lorenzen (12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocked shots, 4 steals), Ronni Williams (10 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 blocked shot, 2 steals), Carlie Needles (10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) and Simone Westbrook (10 points, 5 assists and 2 steals). The Gators (20-6, 8-5 SEC) face Georgia in Athens Sunday afternoon.
Baseball: The #1 Gators open their season with a 3-game home series against Florida Gulf Coast. Florida’s pitching rotation should be expected first rounders A.J. Puk and Logan Shore on Friday and Saturday with freshman stud Brady Singer on Sunday. The Gators were picked #1 preseason in the SEC by the league’s coaches. Picked All-SEC preseason by the coaches were catcher and DH JJ Schwarz, first baseman Peter Alonso, center fielder Buddy Reed and pitchers Puk and Shore. Selected to the second team was catcher Mike Rivera.
Softball: The Diamond 9 Tournament at the Disney complex should be a walk in the park for the #1 ranked Gators, who will face UAB, Jacksonville State, Stephen F. Austin, Omaha and Elon this weekend. The Gators open the tournament with UAB at 3:30 today followed by Stephen F. Austin at 5:45. Delanie Gourley (2-0) likely gets the start against UAB. At the plate the Gators are led by Taylore Fuller (.538 batting average) and freshman Amanda Lorenz (.533 batting average, 9 RBI).
Gymnastics: The #2 Gators are on the road tonight against #19 Missouri. Bridget Sloan ranks #2 nationally in the all-around and is tied for #2 in the bars and tied for fourth on the beam. Alex McMurtry is #6 on the vault, tied for #2 on the bars with Sloan and tied for fourth with Sloan nationally on the beam. Kennedy Baker is ranked #2 nationally on floor.
Men’s golf: The 5th-ranked Gators host the Sun Trust Invitational Saturday and Sunday. The field includes #3 Florida State and #18 Vanderbilt.
Women’s golf: The #12-ranked Gators are in New Orleans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate Golf Championship starting on Sunday.
Women’s tennis: The #3 Gators face #1 California in Berkeley this afternoon and go up against #14 Stanford on Sunday.
Women’s lacrosse: The #8 Gators beat the Welsh national team, 16-5, in a Thursday exhibition match. UF is on the road in Chapel Hill Saturday against #2 North Carolina.
Men’s swimming: The Florida men head into Friday with the top team score (723). Auburn currently second at 669. Caeleb Dressel, who set a US record in the 50-yard freestyle on Wednesday, came back to win the 100-yard butterfly championship Thursday.
Women’s swimming: The Gators head into Friday’s competition at the SEC Championships in Columbia, Missouri at #4 with 426 points. Texas A&M leads with 657.5 points.
THE TEN BEST SEC NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS EVER?
Recently, the Saturday Down South website rated the ten best SEC national championship teams ever. It might be hard to argue Florida’s 2008 national champs but the rest of the list?
Here is the SDS top ten:
1. FLORIDA 2008
2. Alabama 2009
3. Alabama 2015
4. FLORIDA 1996
5. Alabama 2012
6. Alabama 2011
7. Auburn 2010
8. Alabama 1978
9. Georgia 1980
10. Alabama 1961
Here are the 10 best teams from my perspective:
1. FLORIDA 2008 (13-1): Florida probably couldn’t have won the national championship without a game four loss to Ole Miss that produced the Tim Tebow promise. From that point forward, the Gators were in a search and destroy mode. Only the 31-20 win over #1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and the 24-14 win over #2 Oklahoma were decided by fewer than 28 points after the loss to Ole Miss. For the season, the Gators averaged 43.6 points (gave up 12.9) and 445.1 yards per game (7.1 yards per play). Tebow threw for 30 touchdowns and ran for 12. Four Gators rushed for more than 600 yards. The Gators beat six ranked teams including four ranked in the top ten. On the roster were 37 players who spent at least one year in the NFL
2. Alabama 1961 (11-0): Yes, I know it’s a team from a different era and it is indeed difficult to compare eras but this team was special and on of the truly great defensive teams of all time. This was the last great team of the one-platoon era that featured the great Lee Roy Jordan, as good a two-way player as there has ever been. Alabama gave up only 25 points all year while racking up six shutouts. The Crimson Tide gave up 120.5 yards per game. Jordan and Billy Neighbours are in the College Football Hall of Fame. The team produced 10 NFL players.
3. FLORIDA 1996 (12-1): The only game the Gators lost was in Tallahassee when UF played with a patchwork offensive line (only one healthy starter). When the Gators got a rematch with FSU in the national championship game, Florida stomped the Seminoles, 52-20. Only the Vanderbilt game (28-21 win) and the first FSU game (21-17 loss) were close and those were the only games the Gators were held to fewer than five touchdowns. Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy and threw for 39 touchdowns. The Gators averaged 47 points and 465.1 yards per game (7.1 yards per play). Florida beat five ranked teams including #2 Tennessee and #1 FSU.
4. Alabama 2009 (14-0): For all practical purposes, the national championship game was played in Atlanta. When Bama beat previously unbeaten Florida and Tim Tebow for the SEC championship, it was a clash of the best two teams in the nation. Alabama went on to beat Texas in the national championship game. Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy. This was a team that had 10 first round draft picks on the roster. Alabama gave up only 244.1 yards and 11.7 points per game. Alabama beat six ranked teams (four top 10) including #1 Florida and #2 Texas to complete the national championship run.
5. Alabama 2015 (14-1): Since it was so recent, I’ll withhold judgment on this team. In another couple of years, I might move them up on my list but for now, this is the place that seems about right. Derrick Henry ran for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns for a very conservative offense. The defense carried the load, giving up only 75.7 rushing yards and 276.3 total yards per game. Alabama beat nine ranked teams including five teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time they played including the numbers one, two and three.
6. LSU 2003 (13-1): Other than a hiccup against Florida (Gators won, 19-7, behind freshman QB Chris Leak), this was a dominant team loaded with 39 future NFL players. How deep were the Tigers? Four quarterbacks, six wide receivers, seven offensive linemen, seven defensive linemen and nine defensive backs played in the NFL. LSU beat five ranked teams (three top 10), averaged 33.9 points per game and gave up 11. LSU allowed only 67 rushing yards and 252 total yards per game.
7. Auburn 2010 (14-0): Led by Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, this is one of the great offensive teams in SEC history. Newton threw for 30 toucdhowns and ran for 20. Newton and Michael Dyer both gained more than 1,000 yards rushing as the Tigers averaged 284.8 yards per game on the ground for an offense that averaged 499.3 yards and 41.2 points per game. Auburn beat six ranked teams including #2 Oregon for the national championship.
8. Alabama 1992 (13-0): This team doesn’t get nearly enough credit. The defense gave up only 179.3 yards per game. Alabama gave up only 9.4 points per game. Only Mississippi State and Florida scored more than 20 points. Alabama beat #1 ranked Miami for the national championship, ending the Hurricanes 29-game winning streak and quest for a second straight national championship.
9. Tennessee 1998 (13-0): Peyton Manning could never beat the Gators but Tee Martin did, although he had plenty of help from the Gators. This UT team was one that flew by the seat of its pants but found ways to win. A great, great defensive team led by All-Americans Al Wilson and Raynoch Thompson. Tennessee averaged 33.2 points on offense and gave up 14.5 points on defense. The Vols beat six ranked teams including #2 Florida and #2 FSU in the national championship game.
10. Alabama 1978 (11-1): Alabama’s 14-7 win over #1 Penn State for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl is one of the classic games in modern college football history. Alabama’s wishbone offense ground teams into submission and the defense, led by Barry Krauss, Marty Lyons, Tony Nathan and E.J. Junior, dominated. Although Alabama won the 1979 national championship with an unbeaten team, this was the last truly great team of the Bear Bryant coaching era.
Obviously, the athletic director at Arkansas State knows how to negotiate. In 2016 the Red Wolves will get paid 1.3 million by Auburn to take a beating at Jordan Hare. Then in 2017, there will be a $1.65 million paycheck game at Nebraska. In 2018, Arkansas State will be paid $1.7 million to visit Tuscaloosa and serve as Alabama’s sacrificial lamb.
Ben Simmons is a great player who has certainly come close to living up all the preseason hype, but the best basketball player in the Southeastern Conference is Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis.
Former Colts GM Bill Polian, who is reasonably aware of everything in the 2003 lawsuit against Peyton Manning by former Tennessee trainer Dr. Jamie Naughright, is standing by Manning and says he’s the victim of a smear campaign by the New York Daily News that ran a story that made serious accusations against Manning on February 13 without any comment from Manning or any of his lawyers.
Former FSU safety Devin Bush Sr., whose son signed with Michigan on National Signing Day, has been added to the Michigan coaching staff as a defensive analyst. Things that make you go hmmm.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Of the SEC teams that have won a national championship in football, what would be your top five?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
The Sheepdogs are a recent musical discovery of mine. I’ve listened to a couple of their live performances and plan to listen to their most recent album, “Future Nostalgia” sometime in the next few days. I’d love to catch them live but all their live dates through April are in Canada or Europe.