HOOPS: Gators find themselves in thick of SEC race

It only took one 24-hour span earlier this week and all bets were off in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division. When the week began, Kentucky looked the runaway freight train that would run the table on the SEC with a 16-0 mark. By the time South Carolina had derailed the Kentucky express Tuesday night, the Wildcats looked very vulnerable down the stretch, particularly considering the way the Florida Gators dismantled Ole Miss, 90-53, Wednesday night.

That three-game gap that separated Kentucky and Florida now looks like a very shaky two, and if the Gators can get past LSU Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge, things could definitely get very interesting in the SEC East. Florida takes a 16-6 overall record and an 8-3 conference mark into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center Saturday afternoon against an LSU team (14-8 overall, 7-4 SEC) that plays lights out basketball at home. Kentucky (19-3 overall, 10-1 SEC) plays host to an up and down Mississippi State team (18-7, 6-5) that is capable of beating anyone in the country.

If the Gators get a win Saturday in Baton Rouge and Mississippi State does the unthinkable by beating the Wildcats in Lexington, the final four-games of the schedule set up very favorably for Florida. The Gators host Vanderbilt next Wednesday, then go on the road to face South Carolina and Georgia before closing out the regular season at home with Kentucky. The Gators have already beaten Vandy on the road and both South Carolina and Georgia at home.

Kentucky, meanwhile, has road games at Alabama (SEC West leader, 20-4 overall, 9-2 SEC) and Florida among its final four games. It is a schedule that could bring about the downfall of the Wildcats but Florida Coach Billy Donovan isn't worrying what Kentucky does. For the Gators to have any shot at winning the SEC East or tying the Wildcats for the championship, the Gators have to take care of their own business. The Gators will need help to win the East but Donovan isn't counting on that happening.

"I'm a big believer that when it comes to your conference, focus on yourself and worry about yourself," said Donovan. "Kentucky in all reality is in control of its own destination. We on the other hand need some help but we cannot take on help if we don't take care of our responsibilities."

For Florida to take care of its responsibilities, it means the Gators have to win on the road against a team with a big, physical front line, a formula that proved costly in losses at Mississippi State and Kentucky. In both those games, the Gators were outscored and outrebounded in the middle by teams that play a hard nosed, physical brand of basketball.

Freshman center Al Horford, a rebounding machine at home, has been very average on the road, even less than average in the games against Mississippi State and Kentucky. At Starkville, he scored six points and pulled down only three rebounds, and at Kentucky, he had just one point and five rebounds. From a team perspective, in those two road losses, the Gators were outrebounded 39-31 at Mississippi State and 34-27 at Kentucky.

At LSU, the Gators will be facing 6-9, 310-pound freshman center Glen Davis, who averages 13.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and 6-8, 252-pound power forward Brandon Bass, who averages 17.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. In conference games only, Davis is averaging 14.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, while Bass is averaging 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

"They are really two great players," said Donovan. "Bass, last year being freshman of the year, is a year older and contemplated going to the NBA but the one guy who should get some consideration for Player of the Year candidate in the SEC is Davis."

The situation with Davis and Bass reminds Donovan of the Mississippi State game when Marcus Campbell and Lawrence Roberts tuned the Gators up for a combined 26 points, 22 rebounds and nine blocked shots.

"They're very physical," said Donovan. "They're offensive players who can both score and rebound. When you look at Mississippi State, we really got hurt by Campbell because we put a lot of emphasis on stopping Roberts, but when you have two players in the front court in Bass and Davis that are both nearly averaging a double-double, they are a very good front court and tough to defend."

The Gators need to rebound and play interior defense in this road game like they did last Saturday against Tennessee when they outrebounded the Vols, 39-28. While hte Gators played excellent interior defense in that game, they also took care of business defending the perimeter, limiting the Vols three-point shooters Scooter McFadgon and Chris Lofton to a combined 18 points. Against LSU, if the Gators find a way to stop the Tigers inside, they'll have to take care of the perimeter, too.

It's not just a two-man show on the inside for LSU. The Tigers have three perimeter players who are all averaging in double figures. Point guard Tack Minor averages 11.1 points and 5.3 assists per game while wings Darrell Mitchell and Antonio Hudson both average 13 points per outing.

"What makes it so hard [to defend LSU] is you have Tack Minor, Hudson and Mitchell who can all knock down jump shots as well as put it on the floor and create," said Donovan.

When LSU goes outside of Baton Rouge, the Tigers have a way of becoming road kill for the rest of the SEC. Among their road games are a 31-point loss at Kentucky, a 22-point loss at Tennessee and a 15-point loss at Alabama. However, at home, the Tigers are 11-1 with the only defeat a 15-point loss to West Virginia back in December.

Florida will come into the game with all five starters shooting better than 50 percent, one of a handful of teams in the entire nation that can make that claim. David Lee is tops among the starters, hitting 53.2 percent while averaging 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Anthony Roberson, Florida's leading scorer at 18.3 points per game, is hitting 50.2 percent of his shots including 42.4 percent of his three-pointers. Matt Walsh, averaging 14.6, is hitting 50.3 percent of his shots and 45.5 percent of his three pointers. Freshmen Corey Brewer and Horford are shooting 50.9 percent and 52.4 percent respectively.

Donovan sees the LSU game as a real challenge for his team, but knows that Florida is certainly capable of coming through with a win if the team maintains its focus and intensity. He knows that there's nothing the Gators can do about Kentucky until the final regular season game of the year, so all the Gators can do is play each game as it happens and take care of business.

"I hope that our guys become more focused and more narrow-minded," he said. "I think our guys are starting to do that. They're becoming more narrow-minded as the season kind of coming down to a wind here."

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