Gators aim for SEC title

Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Joakim Noah couldn't help but look ahead.

Moments after Florida's 75-70 comeback win over UAB, the last quality test before Southeastern Conference play, the ebullient junior forward already had his mind focused on another prize.

"Winning the SEC this year is one of our big goals," Noah said. "That's the last thing we haven't accomplished as a group and it's something we want to make happen."

The third-ranked Gators have won a national title and two SEC Tournament titles during Noah's tenure, but the regular-season crown has remained elusive. Florida suffered all six of its losses last season in the league to finish second in the SEC East at 10-6.

Florida won a national title but not an SEC East title, which showed the quality of the league last season. League champion LSU joined Florida in the Final Four, losing to UCLA before the title game.

With many starters choosing to bypass the NBA Draft this past offseason, the league is as deep as it's been in close to a decade.

"Talent-wise, coming into the league, it's the best it's been since I've been here, that's for sure," sixth-year South Carolina coach Dave Odom said during preseason media days. "I'm not one to make those kind of statements. Three years ago, we did not have a good league. We didn't. This year, whew."

"If we don't capitalize on it, we're crazy."

The Gators, with all five starters returning, were the preseason pick to win the league, followed closely by Alabama and LSU. Florida will begin the journey for its first league title since 2001 at home Saturday against a Georgia team that beat Gonzaga and took fourth-ranked Wisconsin to the wire last weekend.

"You realize for nine or 10 weeks, you're going to be in some serious battles," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who has won two SEC titles in his previous 10 seasons at UF. "You've got some good coaches, good teams."

"To win the SEC, I think everyone's got that as a goal. At the same point, you can get looking so far down the road that the most important thing right now us playing Georgia. We'll get a chance to play everybody. But right now the most important thing for us is Saturday at noon."

Last season Florida's young team of four sophomores and a junior learned the grind of the SEC schedule. With forward Corey Brewer and guard Lee Humphrey injured at points during the conference season, Florida swept rival Kentucky but was swept by Tennessee and South Carolina.

This season, Florida already has endured injury and illness during its non-conference schedule, which contributed to losses against Kansas and FSU. Healthy entering SEC play, Florida is focusing on getting off to better starts after trailing by double-digits three times in first halves so far this season.

"We can't have any letdowns," Brewer said. "Earlier in the year, we had some letdowns in the first half of some games and didn't really play our best basketball. We have to play our best basketball every night."

If Florida lets down, other teams are ready to pick up the slack.

LSU lost shot-blocking specialist Tyrus Thomas but returns reigning player of the year Glen Davis, who, at 6-foot-9 and close to 300 pounds, nearly averaged a double-double in points and rebounds last season.

Alabama features preseason All-American junior point guard Ronald Steele, to go with returning senior center Jermareo Davidson and emerging sophomore power forward Richard Hendrix.

Tennessee emerged as the surprise team last season with first-year coach Bruce Pearl bringing in a running, pressing style. The Vols have weathered the loss of center Major Wingate to a failed drug with the emergence of freshmen big men Duke Crews and Wayne Chism.

The league returns a bevy of talent in the post, led by preseason All-Americans Noah and Davis. Davidson, Hendrix, Kentucky center Randolph Morris, the Arkansas tandem of Darian Townes and Steven Hill and UF junior Al Horford round out a list of future NBA forwards and centers.

Florida will open league play with back-to-back home games against Georgia and Arkansas. A tough stretch of five road games (including visits to LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee) in February awaits, with the regular season finale March 4 at home against Kentucky.

"It's nice to start at home, but we're still going to have to go back to Georgia, we'll still have to play Kentucky," Donovan said. "I try to keep the viewpoint if you play eight at home, you're going to play eight on the road. Hopefully, you play as well as you can in all 16."

Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at

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