Gators Shoot for the Big Apple

For the second year in a row, the Florida Gators will take to the floor with a chance to earn a trip to New York City for the Final Four of the NIT. Last year, the opportunity was seized when the Gators traveled out West and beat Arizona State in perhaps their best performance of the season. This year Florida gets to play the game at home when Penn State visits the O'Connell Center.

The Nittany Lions, like the Gators were among the last eight teams eliminated from consideration for the NCAA Tournament. They ended the regular season with a loss at Iowa and then fell to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament putting an end to their hopes of an invite to the Big Dance. They have bounced back with home wins over George Mason and Rhode Island.

Penn State is led by all-purpose guard Talor Battle who leads the team in scoring (16.9) and assists (4.9) and is second on the team in rebounds (5.4). He's a solid three-point shooter and everything they do they run through him. Jamelle Cornley offers a major match up problem with his unique frame (6-5, 245), but he's been bothered by a bad shoulder and may not be 100 percent. He got hurt in the George Mason game and did not play against Rhode Island. Stanley Pringle (12.9) is their third leading scorer and most accurate (.465) three-point shooter. Inside, Andrew Jones (6-9 250) likes to bang and has solid numbers (6.0/5.5).

Tempo should be a big part of this one. Penn State's average game is 67-63, while Florida's is 77-67. The Gators are 18-1 in the O'Dome this season, while Penn State was 5-6 on the road.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan assessed the Penn State team.

"They're a very good team," Donovan said. "They are a team, without question at the end of the year that probably could have made an argument for getting into the NCAA Tournament. They had a winning record (10-8) in a very good conference (that's) RPI was very high. They have two really good back court players in Pringle and Battle that can really score. Cornley is a guy I saw a lot in high school. He was always an undersized guy, but he's tough, he's physical, he's a great competitor. He's had a phenomenal career."

I asked Donovan to compare Battle, who is 5-11 to his own Nick Calathes in terms of how what each team does runs through each of them.

"They're a little bit different. Battle doesn't have Nick's size, but I agree with you he does do a lot of similar things for Penn State that Nick does for us. He's a very good player. (He) shoots the three. They are a very good transition team and I think when you guys like him and Pringle on the break who've got speed, quickness and deep range they can get it a lot of different ways. He can go in there and rebound. He can finish in the lane, and he makes the game easier for his team. He's one of those guys to me that's maybe a player out there that hasn't had the same level of recognition as some other guys. But the more and more you watch him on film the more respect level you have for him."

The Gators will be trying to hold a sixth consecutive opponent to 62 points or less. Florida's last five opponents are averaging just 58.5 points a game, but Donovan said you really evaluate defense by opposing shooting percentages.

"I never look at the points, because the points a lot of times are dictated by the pace of the game. Miami and Jacksonville had long, deep possessions into the shot clock. Anytime you have long, deep possessions into the clock it's going to cause lower scoring games. I've always tried to look the field goal percentage."

Ok, let's do that. In those five games Florida's opponents have combined to shoot 41 percent from the field and 27 percent from behind the arc. Prior to this five game stretch the numbers were 49 percent and 38 percent respectively. Donovan said there is one thing the Gators have done better during recent games.

"We have done a good job the last couple of games identifying personnel. I think we did a good job identifying (Jodie) Meeks at the end of the year. I thought we did a pretty good job going into the SEC Tournament on a guy like (Courtney) Fortson. Even in this tournament and look at a guy like (Jack) McClinton I think our guys have had good personnel recognition."

Donovan said despite the Gators success in the O'Dome, he doesn't see that fazing Penn State one bit.

"They've got good resiliency. I think they're tough. They've obviously played in some difficult road environments already; so I think coming on the road to play is probably for them like going anywhere else to play in the Big Ten."

The student-athlete indifferent, fan oblivious dunderheads at ESPN are forcing Florida and Penn State, two Eastern Time Zone teams to play the 9:00, while Central Time Zone teams Auburn and Baylor will play the early game at 6:00 p.m. local time.

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The Gators need to make nine three-point baskets to break the school record of 297 set just two seasons ago.

Nick Calathes needs 10 rebounds to be the first Gator to score 600 points, grab 200 rebounds and dish out 200 assists in a season.

In his last two games Calathes is averaging 20 points, six rebounds and 6.5 assists. He's made 64 percent of his shots, 50 percent from three-point range and 6-of-7 at the free throw line.

Alex Tyus is nine points shy of 600 for his career.

Chandler Parsons has averaged 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists in his two games coming off the bench. As a starter the numbers were 9.2, 5.5 and 1.6.

The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Nittany Lions Assistant Coach Lewis Preston who was on the Gator coaching staff for two years before going to Penn State after last season.


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