UF looks to extend road streak
Published: Friday, January 28, 2011 at 6:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 at 6:09 p.m.
If it were up to Florida junior point guard Erving Walker, the Gators would play all of their games at home this season.
"I don't really like traveling and flying and stuff like that," Walker said. "Not that I'm scared of flying, but I'd just rather be here. I feel like it's a lot easier, a lot more relaxed."
Yet No. 24 Florida has been perfect on the road this season, overcoming some imperfect stretches to pull out some games in dramatic fashion. The Gators will try to improve their 5-0 road record today at Mississippi State.
Of Florida's five road wins, three have been decided by five points or less. The two decided by a larger margin went into overtime, with the Gators winning at Tennessee (81-75 in OT) and at Georgia (104-91 in double-overtime).
"We've been playing well on the road," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "We've moved the ball well on the road. I think we're worried about defending on the road. We're just getting good shots."
Experience also has played a role in Florida's improved road play. With five returning starters, Florida has players who are used to hostile environments.
"Any time you have any level of experience going on the road, and guys have an understanding of what it's about, it's important," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Donovan said it's sometimes easier to get a team to focus on the road because of the ability to control and eliminate potential distractions.
"You are out of town, you are in a hotel, you're totally focused as a group," Donovan said. "There's a lot of unity and togetherness there."
That togetherness has shown on the court in clutch situations. In Florida's first road win at Florida State, the Gators survived with a late putback from sophomore Erik Murphy. Walker hit some big 3-pointers to keep Florida ahead at Xavier. Shooting guard Kenny Boynton and Walker helped Florida avoid an upset at Auburn with back-to-back 3-pointers in the final two minutes.
In overtime wins against Tennessee and Georgia, Florida let leads slip in the closing minutes of regulation. But Florida regrouped with some big shots and big plays in overtime in both games.
"I do think the experience part and our guys playing in some these situations, I think our guys have an idea how hard it is to win on the road," Donovan said. "And I think for maybe a lot of teams when you are dealing with youthfulness, there is not that true understanding."
Florida has already matched its road wins for all of last season, when the Gators finished with a road record of 5-5. In 2008-09, the Gators were 2-7 on the road.
"As a group, we weren't as connected as a team as we are now," Walker said. "I feel like we grew up and now we understand what it takes to win on the road."
The Gators are expecting another tough environment this afternoon at Humphrey Coliseum, known for its cowbell-clanging fans. The Bulldogs, coming off an 81-74 loss at home to Vanderbilt on Thursday night, have had some chemistry issues early this season. But Donovan said Thursday that he feels that Mississippi State has as talented a starting five as any team in the SEC.
"Some of the environments that we've been in — Xavier, Tennessee, Georgia — they are hostile," Walker said. "So we just have to be together, be one unit."
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Kenny Boynton 6-2 So. 13.4 ppg, 2.7 apg
G Erving Walker 5-8 Jr. 14.3 ppg, 3.3 apg
F Chandler Parsons 6-9 Sr. 10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg
F Alex Tyus 6-8 Sr. 9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg
C Vernon Macklin 6-10 Sr. 11.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg
F Patric Young 6-8 Fr. 3.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Fr. 2.0 ppg, 2.1 apg
F Erik Murphy 6-10 So. 5.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg
MISSISSIPPI STATE PROBABLE STARTERS
G Riley Benock 6-4 Sr. 7.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg
G Dee Bost 6-2 Jr. 17.2 ppg, 6.4 apg
G Ravern Johnson 6-7 Sr. 18.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg
F Kodi Augustus 6-10 Jr. 12.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg
F Renardo Sidney 6-8 Sr. 13.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg
G Brian Bryant 6-3 Jr. 6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg
G Jalen Steele 6-3 Fr. 5.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg
F Wendell Lewis 6-8 So. 3.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Guard drives
Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker took the ball more to the basket against Georgia, drawing fouls and hitting runners in the lane. The Gators should be able to do more of the same now that Mississippi State lacks a true shot-blocking threat with the departure of Jarvis Varnado. The Bulldogs have struggled defensively this season, allowing teams to score 70.6 points per game. Mississippi State also has been woeful on the boards with a rebounding margin of minus-1.6.
2. Defending the 3-point line
Mississippi State is shooting 33.2 percent from 3-point range. But the Bulldogs have several shooters capable of knocking down 3s. Senior guard Riley Benock ranks third in the SEC 3-point field goal percentage (45.5 percent) while senior Ravern Johnson ranks second in the league in 3-pointers made (2.9 per game). Freshman Jalen Steele is another capable long-range shooter off the bench. How well Florida guards the 3-point line could determine the outcome of the game.
3. Closing it out
Florida let a four-point lead on the road slip in the final four minutes of regulation at Tennessee and couldn't hold on to an eight-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation against Georgia. Turnovers and missed free throws were the main culprits of the late collapses. Florida was able to win both conference road games in overtime, but players realize they can't continue to live dangerously. "We definitely don't want to go to double-overtime," Florida senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "That was a grind. That was tough. We definitely, when we get those leads in the second half, six-point leads, eight-point leads, we can't turn the ball over. We've got to get shots to the basket. We've got to make free throws. We don't want it to get to that point."
1. How much energy will Florida come out with in its second road game in five days?
2. Can Florida keep Mississippi State from shooting a high percentage from 3-point range?
3. Can Florida avoid turnovers and missed free throws if it has another slim lead late in regulation?
Go to Gatorsports.com after the game to read Kevin Brockway's answers.