Gators Have Dug A Huge Hole In SEC East

The object is to avoid playing the first day of the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament. You do that by finishing first or second in your division in the regular season which means you rest on day one in Nashville. Last Saturday, the Gators looked like a lock to watch round one in the tournament, which is still a month away, but after Wednesday's unexpected loss to South Carolina Florida finds itself in a most precarious situation.

When the Gators (20-3, 6-3 SEC East) lost to South Carolina, 71-67, Wednesday night they fell a full two games behind Eastern Division leader Tennessee, which beat Kentucky in Lexington. That two-game gap in the standings means the pressure is squarely on Florida's shoulders today when the Gators play host to LSU (16-6, 8-1 SEC West) at 1 p.m. in the O'Connell Center in a game that could shape the dynamics of the remainder of the regular season.

Florida must win to entertain any hope whatsoever of catching Tennessee for the Eastern Division title but also to stay one game ahead of Kentucky (15-8, 5-4 SEC East). The Gators will end the regular season at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky's senior day, an emotional game that Kentucky rarely loses. Because the Gators can't count on Kentucky losing another game, it's imperative that they find a way to win against LSU and maintain that one-game margin.

LSU finds itself with a certain level of comfort. The Tigers of Coach John Brady hold a two-game advantage in the SEC West over second place Alabama (13-8, 6-3 SEC West). If the Tigers lose today and Alabama beats Ole Miss, LSU still maintains its lead in the division so there is no question that Brady's bunch will come into this game loose and ready to play.

Florida has gone 3-3 since starting the season on a school-record 17-0 pace so it is important for Coach Billy Donovan to get the Gators back on a winning track. Not only does Florida need to win to stay in the driver's seat for that first day bye at the SEC Tournament, the Gators need to win if they hold any hope of a top four seed in an NCAA regional tournament. There is no question the Gators will be in the tournament NCAA Tournament but where they will be seeded is certainly an issue that has to be decided. A second-place or better finish in the SEC East not only will go a long way toward a higher seeding in the NCAA Tournament but it will cut one game out of that end of the season grind. To win the SEC Tournament means three wins in three nights if you have the first day bye, four wins in four nights if you don't.

Florida's mini-slide has put the Gators in danger of dropping from a certain top four seed into a mid-range seed, something like five through eight, and that's a dangerous place to be for a team that wants to make a run in the post season. A top four seed means facing a team seeded 13 through 16 in the first round and that's usually the champion of a much lower ranked conference. Teams seeded five through 12 are most often high finishers in power conferences or champs of mid-major conferences where the basketball is played at a pretty high level. A couple of years ago the Gators were startled in the first round by a most underrated Manhattan team. Florida needs to finish the regular season strong to secure a top four seeding in a regional for a better chance to avoid a one-and-done or two-and-through in the NCAAs.

Now the Gators finish the season has its start today against LSU, a team that Donovan says is the most physically gifted team the Gators have played all year.

"Just based on what I've seen on film so far to this point, I don't think we've faced even anything close to a team like we'll face on Saturday," said Donovan, keenly aware that the Tigers have one of the most powerful front lines in the nation, led by 6-9, 310-pound Glen Davis, a sophomore who averages 17.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Davis is a force on the inside but he has quick feet that allow him to put the ball on the floor and drive and he also has a respectable outside shot.

"The thing that is so different about him is that he has such great feet for being a guy who is 300 pounds," said Donovan. "He is really very light on his feet. He can shoot, he can pass, he can put it down, he can post … he's as difficult a matchup at the center spot as there is."

The Tigers have a candidate for freshman of the year in the SEC in 6-9 Tyrus Thomas, averaging 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and the front line is completed by another freshman, Tasmin Mitchell, a 6-7 offensive thrill show who was a McDonald's All-American. Mitchell averages 11.8 points per game.

LSU has an outstanding backcourt, headed up by 5-11 point guard Darrell Mitchell, whom Donovan calls a prime candidate for SEC Player of the Year. He is averaging 18.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He's joined in the starting lineup by Garrett Temple, who is 6-5.

The Tigers are one of the best rebounding teams in the country and for Florida to win, the Gators will have to find a way to go toe-to-toe on the backboards and at least stay even. Florida has had its problems on the boards this season even with a height advantage in most games. Florida was outrebounded Wednesday night by South Carolina's much smaller front line. In nine SEC games, the Gators have won the battle of the boards only three times this year.

Staying with the Tigers on the boards means that Florida has to have a huge game from center Al Horford. Horford more or less disappeared Wednesday night against South Carolina, finishing up with just six points and seven rebounds. In the previous three games, Horford had combined for 41 points and 32 rebounds including a season-high 16 rebounds against Vanderbilt. His re-emergence as a force inside is a necessity against LSU's big, strong front line. When Horford is cleaning up on the boards, it also opens things up for Joakim Noah, who at an athletic 6-11 is tough for anyone in the SEC to handle.

Another area that the Gators will have to improve is on finishing down low. The Gators can't afford to come away empty on possession when they get the ball in good scoring position down low. In Wednesday's game, Florida got the ball inside to Horford, Noah and Corey Brewer on a number of occasions but the Gators couldn't get the shots to drop.

"We didn't finish a lot of plays inside," said Donovan. "Joakim's play at 62-60 … he got the ball stripped out of his hands … Al had a couple of offensive rebounds and a couple of post ups against guards that he's taking turnaround fadeaway jump shots on … we probably had about eight baskets that we could have scored inside of four feet that we didn't convert on and I didn't feel that we went up strong enough and attacked the basket like we needed to."

So the Gators have their work cut out for them in this game that will be televised on Jefferson Pilot. There is no question that Florida desperately needs to win this game with roadies to Vanderbilt and Arkansas looming next week. A win and the Gators hit the road with some confidence. A loss and Florida's chances to avoid playing the first day in the SEC Tournament take a big hit.

If the Gators who came up big on consecutive Saturdays with home wins over Vandy and Kentucky show up, then Florida has a reasonably good chance to come away with a very big win. If the Gators who were outrebounded and outplayed by a smaller South Carolina team show up, then it could be a long afternoon.

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