Winning in this league tougher than last year
Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
You haven't heard this since Chris Porter was taking the court in his black socks eight years ago, but Florida faces a tough game at Auburn today.
Yep, the same Auburn that won four games in conference play a year ago.
The same could be said for any game, every game, the Gators play on the road this season for two reasons.
One, the league is tough this year, and, two, it's tougher for Billy Donovan's team than it is for anyone else this season.
Some may point to the league records and say that the SEC has a bunch of mediocre teams, but those people probably haven't stepped into any of the conference's arenas. Winning in this conference is not easy, certainly not as easy as it was a year ago.
"I think one mistake that a lot of people are making with our league was that no one talked about the teams that maybe didn't get into the NCAA tournament last year because they had a lot of young players," Billy Donovan said earlier this week. "Ole Miss can beat any team on any given night because they have a lot of older guys. Mississippi State - same thing - they have older guys that have been through the league. Auburn - same exact thing. Vanderbilt - same exact thing.
"You have a lot of teams that return older guys that got absolutely no attention or recognition at all coming into the season and they're better and they're good teams."
While Florida at this point is the clear leader in the clubhouse, picking a No. 2 team is a difficult task. I'll put it to you this way - if Florida had to go on the road and win one game to win the SEC, take South Carolina out of the mix, but who would you want the Gators to play?
I'm not sure there's a right answer. South Carolina appears to be the league's weakest team, but went out and beat Arkansas this week.
It appears that every other team has about 100 guys who are somewhere between 6-foot-4 and 6-7, can run and jump and have chiseled bodies built for banging. OK, that's an exaggeration. I looked it up and there are fewer than 50 players in the league who fit that description.
"The league is the most athletic it has ever been," said Florida associate coach Donnie Jones.
The key, as Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this week, is that the bad teams are better.
"The difference this year is that the bottom teams have come way up," he said.
That would be Georgia and Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Auburn. Those four teams won only 18 games combined in the league a year ago and have already won 11 this season. Auburn leads the West, has Florida at home and had an extra day of rest.
And, oh, they'll be ready for the Gators.
Which brings us to the second reason why it's so difficult for Florida this season.
Florida is the new Kentucky.
The Gators can't come close to matching the Wildcats when it comes to tradition, championships or kooky fans (although you could argue the latter), but there is no question that the Gators are the main attraction in the SEC.
When Florida comes into your building, it's a big deal.
The biggest deal of the season.
That's why you saw almost 15,000 in Columbia and the largest crowd of the season in Starkville, Miss, where everyone received T-shirts for a white-out. It's why they'll be foaming at the mouth on Toomer's Corner tonight and on Rocky Top in a few weeks. You know they can't wait for the Gators in Lexington.
Just Wednesday night, after scoring a career-high 29 points against Georgia, Kentucky guard Joe Crawford said, "I hope I can have my career high against Florida." Somebody tell Joe, the Cats still have to play Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina before they get their crack at the Gators.
But that's what happens when you win a national title, bring everybody back and find yourself at No. 1. That's what happens when you have a team of personalities like Joakim Noah.
Everyone in the Gator Nation should be puffing out their chests that this has happened, that somebody other than Kentucky is what everybody else wants to be. But that distinction also comes with the baggage of floor-mobbing celebrations when Florida loses. And it's hard not to in this league, this year.
Or any year. It has happened twice in the last 50 years. Florida is the only team with a chance to do it this year. But this season is not about trying to go undefeated in the SEC.
It's about winning the league.
A very difficult league to win.
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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