Gator men's hoops set for SEC play


Published: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 9:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 9:22 p.m.

Florida sophomore forward Jonathan Mitchell remembered watching Southeastern Conference play for the first time from the bench last season.

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Florida center Marreese Speights comes down with a one handed dunk during the first half of the Gators 91-52 win over Florida A&M at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Dec. 5.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

Today's game

* Who: Florida at Alabama
* When: 9 p.m.
* Where: Coleman Coliseum
* Local radio: 103.7 FM, 850 AM
* TV: ESPN

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Stopping Hendrix
Alabama forward Richard Hendrix is living up to his preseason All-Southeastern Conference first-team billing. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Hendrix is second in the SEC in scoring (19.1 ppg) and first in rebounding (10.1). Florida's lack of muscle across the frontline will make the task of containing Hendrix difficult, "What concerns me the most is with his big body, his ability to push away our guys and grab offensive rebounds," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

2. The 3-point line
Alabama has been hurt at the 3-point line this season, allowing teams to make 7.8 3-pointers per game. But Florida has had some difficulties shooting from 3-point range away from the O'Connell Center. The Gators are 23 of 73 (31.5 percent) from 3-point range in its four games away from home this season. Florida may need to hit some 3s early to open up the inside for center Marreese Speights and forward Dan Werner.

3. Alabama's speed
Florida faces an Alabama team that is quick, athletic and deep. Junior guard Alonzo Gee (6-foot-6) could present matchup problems because of his size and ability to penetrate to the basket. Look for Florida sophomore forward Jonathan Mitchell to provide some defensive support off the bench in an effort to contain Gee.

4. Road blues
How will the Gators respond to a
big run against them on the road? Some questionable calls? All are unknowns for a team with five new starters who will be making their first starts in league play in unfriendly territory. Florida got off to a decent start in its first road game last month at Ohio State, but couldn't sustain the early momentum.

5. The free-throw line
If it's a close game down the stretch, Florida will have a significant edge at the free-throw line. Alabama is shooting a lackluster 60.8 percent from the stripe. Florida is shooting 70.7 percent and showed the ability to make clutch free throws down the stretch in its 52-49 win against Georgia Southern. Florida went 24 of 30 from the line against Georgia Southern, making 18 of its last 20 attempts.
Kevin Brockway

"You could just see the competition, the physicalness was totally different," Mitchell said. "Last year, we got a little taste of it. It was a different animal. I don't even know if I was completely ready for it."

When Florida plays at Alabama tonight in a nationally televised game, the biggest challenge for a team of five new starters may come in how quickly they adapt to that level of intensity.

Florida finished 13-2 against a strength of schedule that ranks 340 out of 341 Division I teams according to the computerized Sagarin Ratings, which measures combined winning percentages of opposing teams.

Though Florida coach Billy Donovan was pleased with how his team handled the non-conference schedule, he understands the physical limitations his team faces in a league that's as athletically gifted as any in the country. The Gators lack of size and muscle across the frontline was exposed in an early loss to Florida State.

"Our team is what it is physically," Donovan said. "We're going to put ourselves in the best position to win just from effort and hard work and hustle and a will to win and battling mentality.

"We don't necessarily have the margin for error when you're dealing with the lack of experience and also the lack of size or physical strength, so we have to take what we can control and do a good job with those things."

Chief among those concerns will be containing Alabama junior forward Richard Hendrix. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, Hendrix was a difficult matchup for Florida even before its recent NBA frontcourt purge. Hendrix is second in the SEC in scoring (19.1 ppg) and first in rebounding (10.1 rpg).

"We've got our hands full with him," Donovan said. "I don't know if film does him justice on his strength and how physical he is. He's a terrific offensive rebounder and he does it before shots are taken up by getting great position."

It will present an immediate challenge for Florida sophomore center Marreese Speights, who has played more physical of late but will need to sustain that energy while avoiding fatigue and foul trouble.

"Certainly we can't expect a guy like Marreese to play the whole entire game against him one-on-one," Donovan said. "We've got to be able to provide some different help in different areas of the floor and try to slow him down some."

That could mean some added support from Mitchell and sophomore forward Dan Werner.

"He's a big, physical player, but he's not Michael Jordan," Mitchell said. "There are things that we can to do to try to stop him."

It also will serve as the first SEC game for Florida's top-ranked freshman class. Nick Calathes is leading the league in assists at 5.7 per game.

"We just have to go out there and play," Calathes said. "We have to be the toughest team out there. We have to want it more than anyone else. We've got to push it all of the time."

Florida will play five of its first eight league games on the road, before finishing with a flurry of home games in February. There's also a bye the week of Feb. 23, later than in previous recent seasons.

By then, Florida should have a better idea where it stands in the league.

"That's nice, but it's so far down the road," Donovan said. "Part of the challenge of our team will be our ability to live in the present moment and worry about what's going on today."

FREE THROWS: Donovan said he expects freshman forward Chandler Parsons (illness) to travel to Alabama despite missing practice Monday, "I don't know what he has right now but I know he's not in school," Donovan said. "Our trainers are going to take a look at him (Monday) afternoon. I anticipate him playing and traveling with us, but I'm pretty sure he will not practice."

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