Gators reunite with Rebels tonight


Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:12 a.m.

Florida will look for a signature win tonight when it plays its first game against a ranked opponent this season at No. 18 Ole Miss.

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UF's David Huertas plays against Villanova in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

Today's game preview

Who: Florida at Ole Miss
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Tad Smith Coliseum (8,700), Oxford, Miss
TV: Sun Sports
Radio: AM-850

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Controlling the glass
Florida has been out-rebounded in each of its first two conference games this season. It won't get any easier tonight against an Ole Miss team that is out-rebounding its opponents by an SEC-leading 7.5 boards per game. The physical Ole Miss frontline of center Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams, with Jeremy Parnell coming off the bench, is similar to the size the trio of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard provided for Florida last season.

2. Press vs. Press
Florida has been able to force turnovers and create an up-and-down tempo by pressing in wins against Auburn and Alabama. But Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, with a three-guard starting lineup similar to Florida, won't be afraid to press back. The Rebels pressed effectively against Florida last season, nearly coming back from a 19-point first-half deficit by forcing several turnovers.

3. Werner's foot
Florida sophomore forward Dan Werner suffered a sprained foot last week but showed no problems playing 30 minutes off the bench Saturday against Auburn. Florida coach Billy Donovan described the injury as "day-to-day." The Gators will need Werner for his rebounding and intangibles against a physical Ole Miss frontline.

4. Road confidence
After a dismal road effort at Ohio State, Florida proved it could win an SEC game on the road with a 90-83 comeback win eight days ago at Alabama. "Ohio State helped us in Tuscaloosa (Alabama)," Florida freshman guard Jai Lucas said. "Hopefully we can keep up the momentum that we had and stay focused and it will carry over."

5. Point, counterpoint
Florida freshman point guard Nick Calathes and Ole Miss freshman point guard Chris Warren were city rivals in Orlando, with Calathes starring at Lake Howell High and Warren starring at neighboring Dr. Phillips High. Calathes leads the SEC in assists at 5.9 per game and Warren is third in assists at 5.1 per game. Look for both players to spark their respective offenses with their shooting and passing ability, but the one who plays more under control could end up determining the outcome of the game.

Yet in many ways, the meeting between the Gators and upstart Rebels at Tad Smith Coliseum will serve as a reunion of sorts from players throughout the Sunshine State.

Of the 10 starters in tonight's game between the two schools, seven played high school basketball in the state of Florida at some point in their careers.

Ole Miss starts four players from Florida, led by freshman point guard Chris Warren (Orlando, Dr. Phillips), sophomore guard Eniel Polynice (Sarasota, Booker), sophomore guard David Huertas (Jacksonville, Arlington Country Day) and forward Kenny Williams (Miami, American).

"We try to recruit the whole country, but Florida is certainly an area where we've been able to fill some needs of late," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "It's a big state and it's always been a state that's filled with quality athletes, quality players. I'm sure some of our guys will be fired up facing the state school against some of the people they may have played against in Florida."

Florida starts three players from the state, guard Nick Calathes (Lake Howell), guard Walter Hodge (Melbourne, Florida Air Academy) and center Marreese Speights (St. Petersburg, Admiral Farragut). Speights played a year of prep school at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., but spent the majority of his high school career in Florida.

Florida coach Billy Donovan considers recruiting the state the lifeblood of his program. Though Donovan has had success recruiting nationally, he's pointed to Major Parker (Fort Lauderdale), Teddy Dupay (Cape Coral), Udonis Haslem (Miami), Brent Wright (Miami), Justin Hamilton (Sarasota), Taurean Green (Fort Lauderdale) and Chris Richard (Lakeland) as examples of players from the state who have made important contributions during his 12-year tenure.

"I've always felt like the state of Florida has always had good high school coaches," Donovan said. "It's a state that's a big state, there are a lot of different areas where you could go to.

"We have to do the best job we can in the state because there have been a lot of great basketball players that have certainly contributed for a long time since I've been here."

In addition to the starters, Florida added a pair of quality in-state players in freshmen forwards Adam Allen (Milton, Class 4A player of the year) and Chandler Parsons (Lake Howell), who come off the bench.

Calathes, Florida's Mr. Basketball in 2006 and 2007, earned Southeastern Conference freshman of the week honors for the second time this season this past Monday after averaging 18.5 points, 7.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds in his first two league games.

"There are a lot of terrific freshman in college basketball, O.J. Mayo at USC, Eric Gordon at Indiana, Michael Beasley at Kansas State," Kennedy said. "Nick doesn't get the same fanfare as those guys but he's probably meant as much to his team as anyone in the country. He's got great size, great feel and great court vision and plays like a veteran."

Likewise, Donovan was effusive in his praise of Warren, who ranks third in the SEC in assists at 5.1 per game. Donovan said Warren attended Florida's team camp annually and received a glowing endorsement from former Gainesville High coach Anthony Long, the current coach at Dr. Phillips.

Donovan said Florida had an interest in Warren but was unsure at the time of the status of Green, who eventually left with his junior classmates for the NBA Draft.

"Chris was a guy that I always liked," Donovan said. "For us, it was probably timing more than anything else, where we were with our program and probably where he was with his life and getting ready to make a decision."

Huertas, who transferred to Ole Miss from Florida following the 2005-06 season and Hodge, a Florida junior, are both natives of Puerto Rico who played high school basketball in Florida as a means to gain exposure for American colleges.

Florida freshman point guard Jai Lucas, from outside Houston, said he wasn't aware of the depth of talent of basketball in the state until he arrived at UF. Lucas said he didn't know that Alabama guard Alonzo Gee, who scored 32 points last week against Florida, was from West Palm Beach until Parsons and Calathes told him.

"Florida has a pretty good crop of players," Lucas said.

In comparing the Florida players to Texas, Lucas said, " "We have bigger centers and forwards, but there are a lot of good guards and wing players in Florida."

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