Gators Need To Close Regular Season Strong

Tennessee has already clinched the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship but that doesn't mean the Florida Gators lack incentive in the final three games of the season. Coach Billy Donovan's team can still finish second in the division and that will earn a day one bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, which in turn could affect where the Gators play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Florida (22-5, 8-5 SEC East) has three games remaining in the SEC regular season but the Gators have a chance to create a full game of separation from Kentucky when they face Alabama (15-10, 8-5 SEC West) in Tuscaloosa Sunday afternoon (4 p.m., CBS TV). The Gators got some help Saturday from LSU when the Tigers (20-7, 12-2 SEC West) defeated Kentucky (18-10, 8-6).

The Gators have a Wednesday night game with Georgia in the O'Connell Center and a date with Kentucky in Lexington next Sunday. Kentucky, meanwhile, has a Wednesday date at Tennessee (20-5, 11-3 SEC East).

Getting the first round bye in the SEC Tournament is Florida's first and foremost task. To get the bye, the Gators will probably have to win two of the final three games. Winning all three would seal the deal for the Gators to be Wednesday spectators when the SEC Tournament begins and it would also likely ensure that Florida will be playing round one of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville in front of a very pro-Gator crowd.

If the Gators win all three regular season games to close the season at 25-5, Florida would likely be at least a four seed in the NCAA Tournament no matter what they do in the SEC Tournament. If Florida goes 1-2 down the stretch, the Gators will be playing day one in the SEC Tournament and they'll probably need at least two wins to earn a spot in Jacksonville.

Getting to the 25-win mark would set a school record for most wins in the regular season and it would also take the pressure off Donovan's young team in the SEC Tournament. The Gators were at their best early in the season when there was very little pressure to win. Take the pressure of a high seed in the NCAA Tournament off --- and 25 wins would do that --- and the Gators might just have so much fun that they make it to the SEC Tournament finals for the third straight year.

NCAA Tournament seeding and placement for the first round is often determined by the selection committee's perception of what direction a team is going. Florida's 17-0 start to the season almost ensured the Gators would make the Big Dance, but their 5-5 swoon since the big start could give the perception that Florida is too inconsistent and too far past its peak to merit a high seeding. Finishing strong would give the perception that Florida merits a high seed and the chance to play close to home in front of a large "home" crowd.

A weak finish in the regular season would mean the Gators have a lot of work to do at the SEC Tournament. That's do-able, but certainly not the situation that Donovan wants for his team.

Here are the possible scenarios:

GATORS FINISH 3-0, SEC EAST #2: That would give Florida a 25-5 record. Considering the Gators were at one time ranked second in the nation and spent a good portion of the year in the top 10, odds are it rates the Gators either a three or four seed and a berth in Jacksonville. Florida would skip day one of the SEC Tournament and would face the winner of a likely matchup between South Carolina and Alabama on day two. As the second seed in the East, Florida would be in the same half of the bracket with West champ LSU.

GATORS FINISH 2-1, SEC EAST #2: Florida would be 24-6 in the regular season but still sitting out the first round of the SEC Tournament. That would likely put the Gators on the NCAA bubble for a four seed but it still could get them to Jacksonville, especially if Florida won its day two game. Getting to the 25-win mark is important, but finishing at least second in its division would also be a critical factor in the equation.

GATORS FINISH 2-1, SEC EAST #3: Florida would be 24-6 in the regular season but playing day one in the SEC Tournament. Things get dicey in this situation. While 25 wins might be enough for a four seed if Florida finishes second in the division, it might take at least two wins in the SEC Tournament to get to a four seed if Florida fades to third in the SEC East. As the number three seed, the Gators would face Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament and should Florida win that first game, chances are Arkansas would be looming as the number two team from the West. As the SEC East #3, the Gators would be in the same half of the bracket as Tennessee.

GATORS FINISH 1-2, SEC EAST #3: Florida would be 23-7 in the regular season and playing day one in the SEC Tournament. Two wins would likely get them to Jacksonville but probably nothing higher than a number five seed. If Florida is a six seed, it's a tossup if the Gators make it to Jacksonville. In this scenario, Florida might need three wins at the SEC Tournament to get to Jacksonville.

GATORS FINISH 0-3, SEC EAST #3: A 22-8 regular season would just about make three wins in the SEC Tournament a requirement. A 22-8 regular season would mean Florida finished 5-8 down the stretch and that would put Florida somewhere around a seven, eight or nine seed without three tournament wins. Winning three would put the Gators in the SEC Tournament Finals for the third straight year and the selection committee might think Florida has righted its listing ship, therefore earning a shot at a five seed and Jacksonville.

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The odds are that Joakim Noah will be playing Sunday against Alabama. Noah took a vicious elbow to the face from C.J. Watson of Tennessee in Wednesday's game. Noah was knocked out of the game's final 1:55. He had to have stitches to the face and Thursday morning he had to have a dental procedure to re-implant a tooth that was knocked out.

It is expected that Noah will play but he will be wearing a padded, plastic mask to protect the stitches and a mouth piece to protect the tooth which has been wired back into place.

With his 20-point effort against Tennessee, Noah has moved into second place on the team scoring list at 13.3 per game (Taurean Green is first at 13.8). Noah is hitting 66.3 percent of his shots from the field (Chris Richard leads at 74.5 percent) and 68.5 percent from the foul line (87-127, Green leads at 87.6 percent).


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