Gators Look to March On

The Gator basketball team has had an unreal run of success in the third month of the year. That good fortune needs to continue beginning Saturday if this season is going to have a positive ending. Florida has won 24 of its last 25 games in the month of March and will host Mississippi State Saturday.

The Bulldogs lead the SEC West with a 10-3 record and can clinch the division title with a win or an Arkansas loss to Vanderbilt.

State poses a big challenge for the Gators, literally. First of all, the Bulldogs feature the biggest, strongest guard anywhere in 6-4 power guard Jamont Gordon. The position "power guard" doesn't really exist, but it's the only way I can think of to describe him. Gordon is a strong candidate (he'd have my vote) for SEC Player of the Year. He is averaging 17.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.

The second "big" challenge is power forward Charles Rhodes. The 6-8 245 pound senior is one of the best inside players in the SEC with averages of 16.2 and 7.4. The third "big" issue for the Gators is shot blocking wizard Jarvis Varnado. The 6-9 leaper has blocked an amazing 129 shots, almost five per game. He has blocked twice as many shots as the No. 2 guy in the SEC. Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough round out a very strong starting five, but State gets very little off the bench in most games.

Marreese Speights will have primary responsibility for Varnado and will have to challenge the shot blocker. Dan Werner will draw Rhodes as an assignment and all the perimeter guys will take turns dealing with Gordon. Florida is coming off one of its better defense games against Georgia, and the solid help defense they showed against those Bulldogs will have to be present against these Bulldogs as well.

State would appear to have an edge on the Gators for NCAA consideration with their superior SEC record and higher RPI (MSU #41, FL #49), but Florida might be able to reverse that with a win.

One thing working for the Gators is having the game at home, but it remains to be seen how much that helps. The last home game against South Carolina included the smallest and quietest crowd for an SEC game in years. The Gators have been dominant at home lately, winning 49 of 53 games over the last three years. If they can make it 50 of 54 on Saturday the Gators may just have punched their ticket to the Big Dance.

Florida coach Billy Donovan shared his thoughts on Mississippi State's strong front line and their ability to reject shots.

"Varnado is leading the country in shot blocking. He's a great shot blocker. The only guy you could even compare him to that we've played is Steven Hill of Arkansas in terms of that type of size, but I believe Varnado has better bounce off the floor. I think Charles Rhodes the last few years has been a really consistent scorer and a very talented, physical front court guy. Those two guys up front are very good. There's a reason why they're 10-3 in the league right now, they've got a terrific team."

Donovan says that dealing with those two guys isn't the whole challenge against Mississippi State. He knows how difficult it will be for his guards to handle Gordon.

"It's hard because he's a guy that's started from day one. I think the one drastic improvement for him is that he's really shooting the ball from behind the three point line. That's been one thing where people maybe back off of him to try and control his ability to get to the basket because he's so strong. But the way he's shooting the ball this year from the three point line (52-152, .342) that's really not something you can do because he's capable of and has made four, five, six "threes" in a game."

While I pointed out the way Florida will likely try to handle that trio of standouts from Starkville, Donovan said the Gators have to help each other a lot on the defensive end of the floor.

"I don't think we have anybody that can guard any of those guys one on one. I think we have to try and do it collectively as a group and try to help each other enough to at least contain. I think we did a little bit of that against (Sundiata) Gaines. Jamont Gordon's that kind of guy pushing the ball in transition. He's big, he's strong, he's physical and he can get in the lane."

Questions or comments? Contact's Larry Vettel

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