Another February fade for UF hoops?


Mississippi State forward Kodi Augustus, left, works the ball against Florida forward Alex Tyus during in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday. (The Associated Press)

Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 12:16 a.m.

It's a month that has signaled the beginning of the end of recent Florida basketball seasons.

Facts

Today's game

Who: No. 23 Vanderbilt Commodores (15-5, 3-3 SEC) at Florida Gators (16-5, 5-1 SEC)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville.
TV: ESPN
Radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

Can this February be different? Florida will find out when it begins the month with the first of critical back-to-back home games tonight against No. 23 Vanderbilt. The week will end with another ranked opponent, No. 10 Kentucky, visiting the O'Connell Center on Saturday.

“We've got two games at home against two great teams,” senior center Vernon Macklin said. “I think if we can go out there and play well and try to get these wins against these two teams, it would be a great opportunity for us.”




Since winning their last national title in 2007, the Gators have gone a combined 18-23 in games from February 1 to the end of the season. When asked about the losing record, Florida coach Billy Donovan said scheduling has played a role. The Gators still have two games with ranked opponents Kentucky and Vanderbilt remaining on their schedule this season, along with home games against Tennessee, Georgia and SEC West-leading Alabama.

“There's no question some of the teams that we're playing going forward are better than some of the teams we've played up to this point in time,” Donovan said.

But in past seasons, the Gators have failed to rise to the challenge against more elite competition.

“I think it's mental,” Macklin said. “I think we have to be ready to play no matter who we are playing against. Obviously, we've got tough games coming up so we've got to be ready.”

Florida (16-5, 5-2 SEC), coming off a 71-64 loss at Mississippi State that knocked them out of the Top 25, may be in better shape to withstand the fatigue that can come playing games in February and March. The Gators have a deeper bench. With the return of sophomore Erik Murphy from an ankle injury, UF has played a 10-man rotation in its last four SEC games.

Florida's bench was a bright spot in the Mississippi State loss, contributing 17 points, 15 rebounds and three steals. The bench allowed Donovan to press more against Mississippi State, which helped the Gators erase a 10-point first half deficit.

“We are a deeper team, but it also depends on how guys are playing, too,” Donovan said. “We were a deeper team against Mississippi State because our bench came in and played well. Those young guys played well, and we need them to play well. Just energy wise, just defensively, even if they are not in a position where they are scoring a lot of points, we need them to be able to do that for us.”

Florida already has played two overtime games and one double-overtime game this season. Still, the emergence of freshman Scottie Wilbekin as a capable backup point guard has provided some relief to backcourt starters Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. Walker, who averaged 32.9 minutes per game last season, is at 32.1 mpg this season. Boynton, who also averaged 32.9 mpg last season, is at 32.3 mpg this season. Senior forward Chandler Parsons leads UF in minutes played at 32.8 per game.

Donovan admitted it's a tough balancing act between practicing too hard or too light this time of year.

“As a coach you are always walking that line of doing too much or not enough,” Donovan said. “There's always a line there. It can either get above that line or below that line. You have to see where they are.”

Donovan said he consults with trainer Dave Werner and strength and conditioning coach Matt Herring before practices to see how his team is holding up physically. Nagging injuries to Murphy (ankle) and Macklin (knee, shoulder) have healed, leaving Florida healthy down the stretch.

“I don't think any coach this time of year is going two-and-a-half, three hours,” Donovan said. “And certainly practice does get cut down in terms of the amount of physical contact and work you are doing between the lines.”

But scouting reports become more intense, which is why Donovan said he's concerned about his team as much mentally late in the season as he is physically.

“Sometimes the mental fatigue is more difficult and challenging than the physical,” Donovan said. “I think these guys are in good shape but I think the mental part of being able to play and come back and get prepared again to play can take a toll.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Kenny Boynton 6-2 So. 13.0 ppg, 2.5 apg

G Erving Walker 5-8 Jr. 14.4 ppg, 3.3 apg

F Chandler Parsons 6-9 Sr. 10.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg

F Alex Tyus 6-8 Sr. 9.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg

C Vernon Macklin 6-10 Sr. 11.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg

KEY RESERVES

F Patric Young 6-8 Fr. 3.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg

G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Fr. 2.0 ppg, 2.0 apg

F Erik Murphy 6-10 So. 6.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg

VANDERBILT PROBABLE STARTERS

G John Jenkins 6-4 So. 19.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg

G Brad Tinsley 6-3 Jr. 10.2 ppg, 4.5 apg

F Jeffery Taylor 6-7 Jr. 15.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg

F Lance Goulbourne 6-8 Jr. 8.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg

C Festus Ezeli 6-11 Jr. 13.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg

KEY RESERVES

F Steve Tchiengang 6-9 Jr. 5.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg

F Rod Odom 6-9 Fr. 4.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg

G Kyle Fuller 6-1 Fr. 2.0 ppg, 1.8 apg

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Stopping Jenkins

Vanderbilt sophomore guard John Jenkins has emerged as the SEC's leading scorer, averaging 19.1 points per game. Jenkins excels both from 3-point range (41.5 percent) and at the free-throw line (90.6 percent). Florida will need to force Jenkins into tough, contested shots. Look for Florida sophomore guard Kenny Boynton, who did a good job against Arkansas sharp-shooter Rotnei Clarke, to shadow Jenkins for most of the game.

2. Frontcourt battle

Florida and Vanderbilt feature two of the better frontcourts in the SEC. The Commodores haven't missed a beat at center with 255-pound Festus Ezeli, who has improved as a post scorer and is a load underneath the basket. "He's a big physical guy," Florida senior center Vernon Macklin said. "He can seal a lot in the post and he plays great defense." Small forward Jeffery Taylor is considered one of the top defensive players in the league, while power forward Lance Goulborne is fourth in the SEC in rebounding at 7.9 per game. It will be a challenge for Florida's all-senior frontcourt of Macklin, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons.

3. Free-throw shooting

Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC in free-throw shooting at 74.7 percent. Florida is 11th at 65.3 percent following a 9-for-19 effort from the line Saturday against Mississippi State. Free throws could become a huge advantage for Vanderbilt in a tight game down the stretch. Florida players will need to maintain better focus from the line not just in crunch time, but throughout the course of the game.

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THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Florida keep Vanderbilt shooting guard John Jenkins from having a big night?

2. Can Florida's frontcourt rise to the challenge against a physical, talented Vanderbilt frontline?

3. Can Florida make its free throws down the stretch if the game is tight?

Go to Gatorsports.com after the game to read Kevin Brockway's answers.

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