Frontcourt gets big taste of SEC vs. MSU's Austin


Published: Tuesday, January 7, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 10:56 p.m.

It's not the ideal way to start a conference season. Where is Vanderbilt when you need it?

For the No. 11 Florida men's basketball team, it couldn't get much tougher. Unless they were flying to Tuscaloosa on Monday. Instead, they face the 7th-ranked team in the country on the road and have to go against one of the nation's top players in Mario Austin.

"It's tough," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "It's the hand we're dealt. But we gotta play them on the road sometime."

While the Gator Nation has been dealing with the comings and goings of football players and debating the future of Ron Zook, Donovan's crew has managed to start the season 11-2. The only problem is that one of the big questions has yet to be answered during Florida's difficult pre-conference schedule.

How does Donovan replace Udonis Haslem?

Maybe the question was answered in the first 13 games - he doesn't.

Instead, the Gators have been exposed at times in the frontcourt. David Lee has had his moments, but nobody knows if he's ready to go head-to-head with a player like Austin.

Florida has outrebounded its opponents by 2.6 per game, but if you take the games against Stanford, Kansas, West Virginia, Florida State, Maryland and Miami - two of them losses and the other four narrow wins - the Gators have been outrebounded by three.

So what havoc might Austin, a 6-foot-9 widebody who considered a jump to the NBA after last season, wreak on the Florida frontcourt?

The answer comes tonight, but if there is solace for the Gator big men it's that Austin really didn't do much against UF a year ago.

In two games, one an easy Florida win in Gainesville and the other a loss to the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, Austin averaged 10 points and three rebounds.

Actually, he had identical totals in both games. And the second came with Haslem on the bench for all but 18 minutes because of foul trouble.

"He's better," Donovan said of Austin. "He's a year older. Some of the things we did last year, we did a good job. But you have to be careful because if you provide so much help on Austin someone else can burn you."

Last year in Atlanta, that someone was Timmy Bowers who scored all 17 of his points in the second half.

But that's the thing - if you get too caught up on Mississippi State's big center, his numbers could be the least significant of the game.

The Bulldogs didn't get to this point with Mario Austin and the Austinettes. Mario's brothers are what makes Mississippi State one of the teams to beat in the SEC. But how Florida handles him will decide whether it is the first team to beat MSU with Austin this season.

So here was my idea. You play everybody in the post. Lee, Matt Bonner, Bonell Colas, Adrian Moss, Mario Boggan, Chris Capko, Anthony Grant. You Hack-a-Shaq him to death and hope he doesn't make his foul shots.

But there is an inherent problem in that. While Austin may be a matchup problem for Florida, the Gators have their own players who are difficult to match up with.

Lee may not be big enough to handle Austin by himself, but Lee is also too quick for a center and too big for a forward to handle.

"People always ask me how I'm going to cover these bigger centers but at the same time they have to cover me," Lee said. "A lot of times he's guarding centers who can bang. I'm not sure he's guarded a five who can go out on the perimeter and mix it up and drive on him."

And we all know what Bonner can do with his jump hook and three-pointers. So the last thing you want to do is make those players ineffective because they have foul trouble.

"I don't want to go in there with the mentality we're going to foul him," Donovan said. "Bonner and Lee need to stay out of foul trouble. We don't want to just start fouling and fouling."

What Florida hopes to do is make Austin guard its talented offensive players inside and maybe get into some foul trouble of his own. But more than anything, the Gators have to defend all five players on the court - not just Austin.

Austin's power makes him an SEC player of the year candidate. But there's so much more to this team as Florida found out last March.

Remember that game in Atlanta, when Florida played so poorly against the Bulldogs in the second round of the SEC Tournament? Donovan was so angry with his team he made the players stay an extra day to watch because that's what they would be doing if they played the same way in the NCAA Tournament.

As it turned out, it didn't work.

But this is a different Florida team.

"They're a lot like they were last year," Donovan said. "And we're not."

And Florida is not at home, where they drilled the Bulldogs by 28 last season.

"We're excited about playing in this game," Donovan said.

We're just excited the SEC season is upon us.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can see Pat on "Sports Showdown" with Larry Vettel on WGFL-CBS 4 Friday nights at 11 p.m.

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