But five SEC wins out of the gate are huge in a league race that is a 16-game marathon, and like every marathon, there are peaks and valleys. The next three games (Mississippi State, Alabama and Kentucky) could put the Gators on top of the peak or at the bottom of the valley.
It starts tonight in Starkville against a Mississippi State team (16-5, 4-3 SEC) that could be branded the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Ever since Winsome Frazier went down for the season with a broken foot the Bulldogs haven't had a consistent scoring presence from the outside to take the pressure off their All-American power forward Lawrence Roberts. Mississippi State ranks tenth in the conference in three-point shooting at 27 per cent. The Bulldogs take the fewest three-pointers of any team in the league.
At the time of his injury, Frazier was averaging 13.2 points per game. He knocked down 36 three-pointers in the first 16 games of the season and he was also the best perimeter defender for Mississippi State. Without his play on the perimeter, the Bulldogs have become almost exclusively a power team offensively, and they lack a lock down defender who can stifle a big shooting guard or small forward.
Without Frazier the offense has relied more heavily on Roberts and fortunately for Mississippi State, he can score against double teams, plus he's such a gifted rebounder that even when they can't throw one in the ocean, he's able to go get the ball and put it back up. Through seven SEC games, Roberts has gotten to the foul line 75 times, nearly half of the Bulldogs' team total in SEC play.
Keeping Roberts and Mississippi State's big front line off the boards and off the foul line will be critical tonight for the Gators if they are to come away with a win. The Gators not only will have to defend well inside, but they'll have to come away with rebounds and do it without allowing State to pick up easy points at the foul line.
"Generally when a team is a good rebounding team, as Mississippi State is, offensive rebounds lead to fouls in your front court," said Gator Coach Billy Donovan Monday at his weekly press luncheon. "Fouls lead to them shooting free throws and putting our people on the bench because of foul trouble. There's no question, if we get them to miss or take a bad shot, we're going to have to limit them to one shot."
The key to beating the Bulldogs is containing Roberts, a 6-9 power forward who leads the SEC in scoring (18.6) and rebounding (11.3). Last season, Roberts was overpowering in a 79-66 Mississippi State win over the Gators at the O'Connell Center. The big man who transferred in to Mississippi State from Baylor, is the focus of every team's defense every night out, but he still gets his points and his rebounds.
"He's like Mr. Double-Double," said Donovan. "I heard some comments from Brandon Bass and Glen Davis (of LSU) made after the game (LSU win, 69-62) and they said the key to the game was they shut down Lawrence Roberts. The guy had 16 points and 13 rebounds. That's pretty good if you're shutting a guy down and he's hitting 16-13."
It's not like Roberts is the only big man in the MSU lineup. Center Marcus Campbell is a 7-0, 270-pound center who is the biggest post player the Gators have faced this season. He averages only 7.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, but he creates a tremendous amount of space with his wide body. The challenge of facing such a big front line is not lost on Donovan, who says that now is the time when his Gators will find out if their improved rebounding is a sign of the times or just the reality of being taller and more athletic than their six previous SEC opponents.
"Some of the teams we've played up to this point have been a little bit undersized in the front court," said Donovan. "Mississippi State, over the last four years, has been the best rebounding team in the SEC. They've got great size with Campbell and Roberts up front. They go to the backboard very hard, and I think rebounding will be a challenge for our team tomorrow night. We got dominated when we played them at home last year, and we're going to give a better effort against them tomorrow night to put ourselves in position to win."
Backup power forward Chris Richard attributes Florida's improved rebounding to more emphasis on blocking out during practices. Not only are the Gators practicing blocking out more, they have to run if they miss assignments.
"This year, it's like every single practice [working on block outs]," said Richard, a 6-8, 245-pound wide body sophomore from Lakeland. "Last year, we did it every now and then. This year there's much more emphasis on blocking someone out."
The emphasis shows in the rebounding margin statistics where the Gators lead the SEC with a 12.2 margin. The Gators are averaging 39.5 rebounds per game in conference play, allowing only 27.3. Mississippi State, long recognized as the premier rebounding team in the league, is averaging a 6.9 rebounding differential. The Gators next two opponents, Kentucky and Alabama are third and fourth in the same category.
"There's a hustle stats chart this year," said Richard, "so every time you miss a blockout they chart it down and you have to run for it. Last year, you miss a blockout and sometimes they'd say something but nobody really got on you."
Richard says the number of missed blockout assignments have decreased as the season progresses because, "you know we have to run for it at the end [of practice] if we miss one so everybody is trying to find somebody and hit somebody more."
Donovan knows the key to the game will be the inside play of power forward David Lee (6-9) and center Al Horford (6-8) along with Richard and Joakim Noah (6-11) coming off the bench. The big guys will have to play well, rebound well and most importantly, stay out of foul trouble.
"We need all four front court players that are available," said Donovan. "They've got two really experienced guys in Campbell and Roberts. We've got one sophomore (Richard), two freshmen (Horford and Noah) and a senior (Lee). We need all those guys to play well and understand what's going on, but it's a tall order."
Lee comes into the game off an 18-point, 10-rebound effort against South Carolina. He's averaging 10.3 rebounds per game in SEC play, third best in the conference in league games only. Horford is fifth in SEC play at 8.8 per game.
For Florida to come out on top Tuesday night, the big guys will have to do their part. If they do, the Gators have a shot at beating a ranked team and moving one step closer to that magic number of 10 SEC regular season wins that will just about guarantee their eighth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.