SEC action arrives
Published: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 11:22 p.m.
A few days after his team's loss to Florida State, Florida coach Billy Donovan received a call of support from a high-profile friend.
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale didn't reach Donovan directly, but left a message on his voice mail.
"I just told him to keep his head up and that he's still the perfect guy for that situation," Vitale said. "I really believe that. I really believe he's going to get things turned around."
Florida enters its Southeastern Conference opener today against Arkansas in a precarious situation. Gone is leading scorer Matt Walsh for at least four weeks with a high ankle sprain. In comes Arkansas, the hottest and most improved team in the SEC, with an eight-game winning streak.
The Arkansas game will begin a grind of 16 straight conference games that will determine if Florida has the resolve to withstand a second straight season of adversity. They are two starters down, and being counted out.
"I think we're going to surprise a lot of y'all," junior point guard Anthony Roberson said. "Even with the injuries."
The injuries include Walsh and junior center Adrian Moss, who is available but hampered with disc problems in his back. Moss won't start and is still working his way back into extended playing time after sitting out close to two weeks of practices.
"It's a challenge," Donovan said. "We're dealing with some obstacles with Walsh and Moss out because they bring so much to the floor with their emotion. We haven't had a lot of games under our belt where we've played without Matt.
"The ball is going to go up at noon and we're going to need to play to the best of our ability, and the one thing I feel good about is I love coaching this team because we have kids that want to do it."
Doing it in the SEC might not even be enough. Of the six top conferences in the country, the SEC's non-conference winning percentage (75 percent) was higher than only the Big Ten. The Big East leads conferences at 81 percent, followed by the ACC at 80 percent.
Florida may need to finish at least 10-6 in the conference in order to ensure its seventh straight NCAA Tournament berth. Anything less would put Florida in a position where it would need to win a few games in the SEC Tournament, then hope the selection committee takes into account the youth and injuries that contributed to its 8-3 non-conference start.
The lone quality non-conference win has come against a Providence team that was playing its third game in four nights and took a flight from New York City to Miami the night before the game.
"It comes down to the same thing as last year, when we were 14-8," Donovan said. "If you win games and put yourself in a position to get in, than I think you're going to get in. We're a league right now that has pretty consistently gotten six teams in. But it's so early for that right now just considering this is the first week of the SEC. I think everyone is more prepared for winning games and trying to get off to a good start."
"They've got to protect the home court," Vitale said. "That's critical. You've got two with Kentucky and you have to hope that you can go up and at least play well in their place and maybe steal one against them at home."
Florida's RPI, at 134, is actually better than six other conference teams, which will make climbing the ratings ladder that much more difficult.
So what's wrong with Florida?
"The talent level is not there," Vitale said. "Billy doesn't have the caliber of players he did a few years ago with a Mike Miller, a Donnell Harvey and a Udonis Haslem. And he needs to identify who the players are that are going to be able to step up and be smart with the basketball down the stretch. We saw that against Louisville. Shot selection really hurt them there."
"We have nice players," Donovan said. "What we don't have are NBA-level players. And not many teams have those kind of guys anymore because so many of them are going out of high school."
SEC play is generally more physical, more intense. Florida got a taste of it against Florida State, but the intensity should skyrocket significantly today. Blowouts will be a rare sight.
"Every game is going to come down to the last five possessions," Moss said. "Whoever executes the best off those last five possessions, whether it's holding the lead or coming from behind, usually comes out on top."
Said Donovan: "It's an emotional, it's a physical, it's a mental grind. For nine weeks, 16 games, as a coach you realize that on any given night anyone can beat you."
If there are signs of chinks in Florida's armor, Arkansas coach Stan Heath doesn't see them. Even at 13-1, the Razorbacks come into today a 6-point underdog.
"I don't see any reason why we would let up," Heath said. "They still have two very dangerous players in Anthony Roberson and David Lee. (Lee) Humphrey is a guy that can hurt you if you leave him open on the perimeter, and they have some pretty talented freshman with Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and (Joakim) Noah."
Lee and Roberson will need to raise the level of their play significantly while the freshmen grow into their roles. If Walsh heals quickly, he could be back in time for a February stretch run in which Florida will play six of its last 10 conference games on the road.
"We have five young guys who are getting a lot of time," Walsh said. "But eventually, that's all I've been hearing since I've been here, that as an excuse, that we're really young. Me, David, Anthony, we've probably played more minutes than anyone in the SEC, so I don't think that's an excuse anymore."
Donovan is concerned about relying on so many freshmen during the early part of the SEC season, but he has no choice. The Moss injury forced Horford into the starting lineup. The Walsh injury will mean more time for Brewer as a starter, and more time for Green and Cornelius Ingram off the bench.
Donovan pointed to the Seminoles' 10-0 run in the last minute of the first half in Tallahassee as an example of the perils of playing youth. Mistakes by Brewer, Green and Noah all contributed to the run.
"Our guys have got to go through things in order to figure out what I'm talking about," Donovan said. "I'm preaching it every day but it's like me dealing with my 2-year-old and saying that is hot, that's hot. But she really doesn't get it until she touches it, what it feels like.
"They understand, but until they get thrown into the situation, they can't learn from that."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article