Given the nature his still-developing ball club Coach Rick Stansbury would naturally rather stick around Humphrey Coliseum a while longer. But the schedule says ‘go' and the coach knows a bunch of pups are in for an entirely new experience Wednesday at the O'Connell Center.
"It's an atmosphere these young kids have never been in," Stansbury said Monday morning. "And when you have to play a terrific team, we have our work cut out for us."
The Gators are playing some pretty terrific ball midway of this season. They enter the game 14-0 after opening league play with a dominating performance at Georgia, and are one of just three undefeated clubs left in the country. Currently ranked 5th, Florida could move up another notch when today's new poll comes out and Coach Billy Donovan's team is now the consensus SEC frontrunner.
"It's obvious we're going to play probably the biggest surprise in college basketball," Stansbury said. Not that he's surprised the Gators are good, but that after losing most of the big names from a 24-8 season that Florida has gotten this good again, and this fast. Still, he adds, "The job Billy's done is no fluke. I'm not sure anyone in the country is any better than Florida now."
The talent level is still high even after the early departures of headliners Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. Stansbury says the Gator backcourt not only has re-loaded but might be playing a better team game now. "It's chemistry and rhythm," he said. "Everybody is sharing the basketball, they've got great roles. They have a two-guard who can shoot it from 25 feet consistently, a point guard who does a little of it all, a great wing guy who is a defensive stopper and shoots it. And they have versatile guys in the post who can really run the floor."
And, of course, the Gators are making their own SEC home-debut with a bit of revenge in mind. State has won the last two regular-season meetings including a 79-68 upset in 2004 in Gainesville. Florida did take care of the Bulldogs last March in the SEC Tournament, but the current lineups share little more than the uniforms. Only a couple of these Dogs have ever experienced the league's most frenzied home court.
"As always it's a difficult place to play, the atmosphere is terrific," Stansbury said. "It's obvious we have our work cut out for us."
State is leaving home with a measure of confidence, though, having opened their own conference campaign by knocking off Arkansas 69-67 at The Hump. The Bulldogs beat the bigger Razorbacks on the boards, made enough timely defensive stops, and hit the tough shots to score a West Division victory. They also did it short-handed with two regulars sidelined.
One, senior point guard and veteran outside shooter Jamall Edmondson, hasn't played since December 21 at Puerto Rico with nagging hamstring problems. Stansbury does not expect to have his oldest Dog available at Florida, either. "I really don't know, I'd have to say no-go. Yesterday it was basically no change, I'd be very surprised if he can do anything."
State has been able to beat George Mason and Arkansas without Edmondson, but Florida—on the road—is a much bigger challenge. "He's safe as a point guard and he makes shots," said Stansbury. Now rookie Richard Delk will again open at point if he's full-strength. The kid was hit, literally, by increased pressure in the Arkansas game and ended up limping to the bench with a bruise above the knee. "And there's not a lot of meat on those bones," the coach noted, "I wanted to know where that muscle was!" Wingman and fellow frosh Jamont Gordon is now the alternate point with junior Dietric Slater a fall-back option.
Stansbury doesn't mind these Dogs handling the ball, but he does worry about how such forced roles is slowing the entire team's development in other aspects. "The most difficult thing, besides having to play youth, is it hasn't allowed us to get any rhythm. And with youth you don't know how they will handle things possession-to-possession."
As of this morning the coach had no real comment on another player's status. Sophomore forward/center Walter Sharpe did not play a second-straight game, the fourth he has been benched since regaining eligibility in mid-December. All Stansbury would say Saturday was Sharpe did not play as a ‘coach's decision.' This morning, asked if Sharpe would be activated for Florida, he demurred. "It's way too soon to answer that question. It's still a coach's decision, I'll make the decision as it goes on."
The Bulldogs leave Tuesday afternoon for Gainesville and return immediately after the game to prepare for the weekend bus trip to Oxford. They have no class conflicts to worry about this week as the spring semester does not begin until next Wednesday.