Gators Facing Changing Expectations

One of the great things about college sports is how quickly things can change. Every player knows the jump from hero to goat involves just one fumble, one bad pass, a crushing turnover or missed free throw. Coaches too realize that the journey from genius to village idiot is one bad game plan, one bizarre play call or an inexcusable penalty or technical foul.

And so it is with this year's Gator basketball team. Florida began the year with understandably low expectations after losing the top six players off the two-time NCAA Champs. Those expectations began growing slightly before a devastating loss to Florida State. I can't tell you how many calls and e-mails I got after that game all with the same theme. The Gators looked like a high school team playing against college men and would be lucky to be an NIT team this season.

Six wins later the NIT thing was pretty much in the bag, but a 13-point loss at Ohio State left the Gators 0-2 against quality teams. The emails and calls resumed and the theme returned even stronger than before. But after an SEC opening road win against Alabama people raising expectations all over Gator Nation.

Handling Success a Key

Billy Donovan now has to make certain his young charges don't embrace their victory in Tuscaloosa as a sign they have gone from rebuilding to contending. This is still a team that turns it over too much and faces daily challenges on the boards against bigger and more experienced front courts. The Alabama win was significant, don't get me wrong. I don't think anyone in the SEC has a better tandem than Richard Hendrix and Alonzo Gee and the two combined for 56 points and 24 rebounds the other night.

Now Florida gets ready to host Auburn, which might be the only team in the SEC the Gators will have significant physical advantages against. Auburn is without its top two big men and often has just one player on the floor taller than 6-5 or shorter. Still Donovan says Auburn has some attributes that concern him.

"They are very athletic and might be the fastest team in the league," Donovan said. "The one thing they are missing is that they don't have the size, but sometimes their speed and quickness has made up for it. You look at a guy like (Quan) Prowell who is really probably a small forward at 6-7, 6-8 and they'll play him in the center spot. Now a guy like Marreese Speights has to match up with him. That presents a whole lot of dilemmas. So I would say the biggest challenge is dealing with their speed, their quickness and their athleticism both in the open court and the half court."

The Gators have another advantage heading into this game. Florida played Alabama Tuesday night, while Auburn had to play Arkansas (they lost 76-70) Thursday night and then travel to Gainesville. That's tough on any team and is particularly grueling for a squad whose starters averaged 35 minutes against the Razorbacks. Still, Donovan feels that Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo can take advantage of some pluses to having the quick turnaround.

"I'm sure in Jeff's situation he probably views it and sees it as a disadvantage, and I'm sure if I were in his shoes I'd be looking at it that way, too," Donovan said. "As we all do in coaching we try to look at it as being positive when you're in that situation. A lot of times when a team doesn't have much time to prepare it creates a lot of freedom and looseness to go out there and play. You're not focused on as much mentally. Certainly coaching wise you'd always say you'd like to have a couple of days to get prepared and great ready. But there's also something to be said for this; how come players sometimes have their best games when they're sick? How come guys have their best performances on short turnarounds?"

"There's a mindset that goes into this that plays a different role for you. I think they'll some in a very loose confident team, an experienced team. They've been a team of change anyway. They plat 1-3-1 zone, they play 2-3 zone they play man to man and they jump pick and rolls. They give you a lot of things to prepare for and they can come in on a short turnaround and maybe not prepare for a lot because they can do what they do."

Maybe so, but there's no way Donovan would trade his situation for Auburn's heading into the O'Dome Saturday. His team is deeper, healthier and more rested. They are playing at home and have the momentum from a road win while Auburn has the downer of a home loss. Everything favors the Gators in this one. We'll see if the final score does, too.

Questions or comments? Contact's Larry Vettel

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