The race is on
Gators, Tigers eye NCAA tournament
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2003 at 10:45 p.m.
AUBURN, ALA. - Come mid-March, Florida and Auburn will likely be in the same place, but as both schools head toward the NCAA Tournament, the Gators are certainly taking the more direct route.
When No. 4 Florida plays Auburn at 2 p.m. today at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, the game is a must-win for both teams, but for different reasons.
The Gators are playing for a bye in the SEC Tournament, a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and are trying to hang on to any fading chances of staying in the SEC race.
The Tigers are also playing for the SEC West title and a bye in the SEC Tournament. But as far as the NCAAs are concerned, right now Auburn needs to get that defining victory that would assure them a spot in the 65-team field. A win over Florida would do that.
"Florida is a great team," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "They've played excellent all year. We need to take care of things and then try to play for the West (title)."
The Tigers were dealt a crushing blow Wednesday when they were demolished at LSU. Florida coach Billy Donovan dismisses the notion that Auburn's recent loss was a sign of where the team is headed.
"Every team in this conference except for Kentucky, has had a game like that," Donovan said. "The same thing happened to us against Kentucky. I think if anything it is going to make Auburn come out with a little something extra to prove against us."
The Tigers have the talent to give Florida everything it can handle. Senior forward Marquis Daniels is averaging 18.7 points a game and Donovan said the Orlando native is as dangerous as any player in the conference.
"I think he belongs in the same category as (Kentucky's) Keith Bogans, (Florida's) Matt Bonner and (Tennessee's) Ron Slay as far as (SEC) player of the year is concerned," Donovan said. "He's incredibly versatile and reminds me a lot of (LSU's) Ronald Dupree."
Florida's schedule escalates its level of toughness over the final three games. After Auburn the Gators play at Georgia on Tuesday and then close out the regular season at home against Kentucky. While the Tigers may be the easiest game left on the Florida's schedule, today's game is anything but a cakewalk. While Auburn has struggled lately, by losing three of its last four, the Tigers have been difficult to beat at home, as evidenced by their 12-3 record.
Right now, Donovan is battling against complacency as he's trying to keep his team focused and grounded over the final three games. Florida played what Donovan called its best game of the season Tuesday night against South Carolina, but he knows how quickly that game would be forgotten if the Gators fall to Auburn.
"These guys have done a really good job at keeping things in perspective," Donovan said. "I don't want them caught up in how they played a few nights ago."
There appears to be little chance of that happening. On Wednesday, when Donovan gave the team a well-deserved day off, several of the players were back in the practice facility shooting on their own.
"I didn't really expect to see them, but Christian Drejer was down there shooting, Matt Bonner was down there shooting, Brett Nelson was down there shooting," Donovan said. "It's easy to see how much this team wants to win."
You can reach Dylan B. Tomlinson by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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