A Chance For Florida To Show It Can Respond

The question on everyone's mind throughout Florida's marvelous 17-0 start to the basketball season was what would the Gators do once they were brought back down to earth? The first taste of defeat came Saturday night in Knoxville and the first chance to respond will be tonight when the Gators take on South Carolina in Columbia.

Florida's loss to Tennessee only cost the Gators (17-1, 3-1 SEC) a short drop in the polls. They're now fourth in the coaches' poll and fifth in the Associated Press. The real question is how far has Florida's confidence dropped? Is this a Florida team that can put the last game completely behind them and turn the focus totally on the next opponent or is this a team that will dwell on the mistakes that cost them a win in Knoxville?

Just because the Gators lost to Tennessee doesn't make them any less of a target, either. They still wear the bulls-eye and they are still the team to beat in the SEC, which makes them a prime target for a South Carolina team that easily be 14-4 instead of 10-8 with a break here or there. The Gamecocks are 1-4 in SEC play but those four losses include a five-point roadie nail biter at Ole Miss, an overtime loss at Georgia and a buzzer beater dagger to the heart that cost them a win at Kentucky.

This isn't a bad team that the Gators are playing and it would be a tough game even if Florida were at full strength. The Gators got good news Tuesday that injured Corey Brewer is making great progress with his sprained ankle and is expected to play, but he hasn't practiced in the last two days and there is no accurate way to gauge if he will be able to play with the kind of abandon and quickness that makes him one of the SEC's most feared players in the open court.

If Brewer is able to go full speed, then the Gators have the advantage of a slasher on the offensive end and a totally disruptive influence in the open court and on the defensive end. Without him, the game plan changes radically for the Gators.

Brewer proved in the loss to Tennessee that his presence on the defensive end is far more commanding and important than anything he gives the Gators in a half court offense. Whatever points that Brewer contributes in the half court game is simply gravy. The Gators have some serious weapons already to fill up the basket with the outside presence of Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green and the fearsome foursome inside presence of Al Horford (6-9), Joakim Noah (6-11), Chris Richard (6-9) and Adrian Moss (6-9). What Brewer gives Florida is that electrifying defensive intimidator who can lock down guards or forwards and create his own points in the open court.

He scored exactly half of his 20 points in the Tennessee loss after he sprained the ankle and this was a game in which every contribution made on the offensive end was critical. What was missing from Brewer's repertoire from the moment he went down with the ankle was his ability to create points in space with his defensive presence. At 6-9, he had enough of a height advantage that he could get a shot any time he wanted to against Tennessee and this was a night in which the shots were falling for him.

What he couldn't do was intimidate anyone on the perimeter with his defense after he got hurt. The quickness just wasn't there. Instead of playing in your face defense, he was sagging and just making certain he wasn't going to be beaten off the dribble.

Taurean Green completely shut down Tennessee's point guard C.J. Watson and Dane Bradshaw was only a threat for garbage points. Chris Lofton was another story altogether and that's where Brewer's defensive skills were missed the most. Lofton, who might be the most scary outside shooting threat in the country whose name isn't J.J. Redick or Adam Morrison, wore Florida out because the Gators didn't have anyone who could stop him.

That brings us to tonight's game against a South Carolina team that seems to have a launch it first, ask questions later mentality. The Gamecocks average taking 19 three-pointers a game and they have five players who have at least 30 attempts from behind the arc. They're not the type of team to pound it inside which is evident in the fact they've only taken 291 free throws in 18 games.

Florida, on the other hand, has MADE more free throws (307) than the Gamecocks have attempted. Florida's strategy will be to get the ball inside first and if the defense sags, kick it out to the three-point shooters.

Because South Carolina is so dependent on its outside game, Brewer's presence is critical. Walter Hodge has shown that he is not defensive liability when he is in the game and David Huertas has made great strides in his defense, but those two freshmen are far more critical to the Gators coming off the bench to rest Brewer, Humphrey and Green. If they have to go extended minutes because Brewer can't go or is limited in the minutes he can play, where the Gators will likely suffer is on the defensive end.

The injury and South Carolina's reluctance to jam it inside might just trigger Donovan to play more zone than normal. Donovan used the zone extensively in 2004 when Christian Drejer pulled his midseason sayonara. Florida really didn't have the personnel to defend so he used an active zone that was effective when it squeezed the wings. It could be a strategy he employs tonight against South Carolina because it would allow Brewer to play on a wing where he could be a disruptive influence without having to make all the quick cuts and stops that are necessary in man to man.

Florida also has to find a way to get Lee Humphrey back in the offensive flow of things. He's been in somewhat of a shooting funk ever since he knocked down 3-5 from three-point range against Mississippi State. In the three games prior to Mississippi State, Humphrey connected on 13-21 from beyond the arc. In the three games since Mississippi State, Humphrey has hit just 5-18.

Humphrey had a couple of good looks at the end of Saturday night's Tennessee game but the shots wouldn't fall. His three attempt with 13 second remaining was probably the best look he had all night but his 22-footer came up short.

Humphrey's ability to nail threes opens up the offensive game for Green. Green scored 17 points against Tennessee but he took 15 shots. It has to be a concern for Donovan that Green has hit just 19-54 shots from the field in Florida's four Southeastern Conference games. Green is at his best when he's penetrating because that gets him to the foul line early and often. Green's best scoring games are usually when he spends a lot of time at the foul line where he is an 87.5 percent shooter. Against Tennessee, Green got to the foul line just five times.

Another concern for the Gators is their rebounding. Florida was outrebounded by Tennessee 40-35 Saturday night even though the Gators had a decided height advantage. The Vols played the bulk of the second half minutes with a lineup that was 6-7 and 6-4 up front. In their four SEC games, Florida has been outrebounded by all except Mississippi State (plus six advantage for the Gators) and in the four conference games, Florida is minus seven overall.

South Carolina has a couple of skinny post players in Renaldo Balkman (6-8, 208) and Brandon Wallace (6-10, 196) so the muscle advantage definitely goes to the Gators. Florida held those same advantages over Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia but the Gators were still outrebounded.

The Gators need a strong game on the boards to come away with the win in a place where South Carolina plays extremely well. Florida had to rally from 17 points down to beat South Carolina in Columbia last year.

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