Game and waiting
South Carolina out to improve on its best start in 34 years
Published: Wednesday, January 7, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2004 at 12:20 a.m.
Some predicted the Southeastern Conference was due for a down season in basketball because of the youth and inexperience of its teams.
Yet Florida enters its 71st campaign in the SEC tonight on the road against a South Carolina team that is off to its best start since Richard Nixon was president.
"Hopefully guys know, starting this week, the intensity level goes up," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "There are no more games where if you don't play well, you win. If you don't play well in this league, you're going to lose."
Florida was 12-4 in SEC play last year, with three losses coming on the road. Last season, Florida rallied back from 10 down in the second half to beat South Carolina 77-75.
"One of the things you've got to be able to do in this league is try to win on the road, and it's hard to win on the road," Donovan said. "But I think you've got to go in with the right mentality and the right focus."
South Carolina, at 13-1, is off to its best start since its 1969-70 team began 18-1. The Gamecocks have done it with defense, as they have held opponents to a .328 shooting percentage.
Junior Carlos Powell and senior Kerbell Brown filled the inside void left by senior 6-foot-9 center Rolando Howell, who sat out the first 12 games for disciplinary reasons after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
Brown scored 24 against Florida last year when the two teams played in Columbia.
"In essence, those guys are really small forward and wing players," Donovan said. "So now, you're in a situation where you're playing those two guys against maybe bigger and stronger people, but they are a matchup problem in terms of their ability to put the ball on the floor and create driving situations."
South Carolina coach Dave Odom put together a non-conference schedule with few pitfalls. South Carolina beat North Carolina State at home 58-55 and won at Clemson early in the season by 10 points. Its lone loss came at Temple.
Other recent wins have come against Yale, Appalachian State and South Carolina State, leaving some to wonder how much Odom has tested his team heading into conference play.
"It worries me, but not for the reasons people think," Odom said. "We built an immeasurable amount of confidence. We're a young team, but we're an inexperienced team.
"Can we compete with Florida? I don't know, but I prefer where we are now by being 13-1 than the alternative. Our kids feel like they have hope right now."
In addition to disciplinary reasons, Howell was also limited early in the season with a foot injury, but the center is being eased back into the lineup slowly. He scored seven points in nine minutes last Friday against Appalachian State.
Donovan prepared for Howell this week as if he was a starter.
"I think you have to," Donovan said. "I know he didn't play many major minutes last game, but I think you have to look at it from the league starting right now, and as talented as he is, and being a senior, a McDonald's All-American, he's a good player and he adds a different dimension to their team."
South Carolina, with three returning starters, came into the season with one of the more experienced teams in the league. The same couldn't be said for the rest of the conference. In the SEC West, five of the six teams lost at least three starters.
It created a perception of gloom and doom (only two SEC teams, Florida and Kentucky, were ranked in the preseason Top 25), but heading into conference play, the six teams in the SEC East have combined for just eight losses, and the six teams in the SEC West have combined for 12. Vanderbilt, a team Florida plays Jan. 17, is 11-0, and at No. 20 jumped into the Top 25 for the first time since February of 2000. Tennessee, which plays against Florida on Saturday in the O'Connell Center, is 9-1.
"It's two games a week against really good, high-quality opponents," Donovan said. "You emotionally and physically have to get ready to play. This time of year, the mental is probably more important than the physical because I think you can get mentally worn down having to play at a high level each and every game."
Donovan has watched the league improve, beginning when he was a graduate assistant under Rick Pitino at Kentucky in the early 1990s.
"Before we went to split divisions, there were games you knew you were going to win," Donovan said. "There are none of those games like that anymore. They're really not, and that's the thing that makes this league so challenging."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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