Gators aim to keep Tide at bay


Published: Friday, March 1, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 12:24 a.m.

Florida coach Billy Donovan and Alabama coach Anthony Grant are close enough to know when to set friendship aside.

Facts

Saturday's game

Who: No. 8 Florida Gators (22-5, 12-3 SEC) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (19-9, 11-4 SEC)
When: Noon
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area TV: ESPN
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM

When the Gators host Alabama for a noon tip Saturday at the O'Connell Center, it will be about Florida trying to keep hold of its slim lead in the Southeastern Conference title race.

“I look at it as two teams playing right now,” Donovan said. “That's it. I mean, he and I's relationship really has nothing to do with the fact that our team and their team are going to get on the court and play against each other.”

Grant worked for 12 seasons under Donovan as an assistant at Marshall and Florida before taking his first head coaching job at VCU in 2006. Three years later, Alabama hired Grant.

Donovan is 4-0 against Grant, including Florida's 66-63 win over Alabama in last season's SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Two years ago, Florida and Alabama met under similar circumstances in a March game in Gainesville. At the time, Florida and Alabama were tied for the best record in the conference. The Gators cruised to a 78-51 win, en route to just their third outright SEC regular-season title in school history.

“He's done a great job coaching his team,” Grant said. “The challenge is going against a team that's been one of the best in the league for a long period of time.

“Obviously, our aspiration is to play for championships. I'm looking forward to the challenge, our ballclub against his ballclub. Our relationship is way bigger than basketball. It's going to be our team against his team, and we're going to do everything we can to go try to win a ballgame.”

This season, Florida (22-5, 12-3 SEC) is a game ahead of Alabama (19-9, 11-4 SEC) with three conference games left to play.

“It's obviously a big game,” Florida senior forward Erik Murphy said. “Every game's a big game, though, at this point. We've got to come out and try to win every game. It would be nice to end my senior year … with an SEC regular-season championship.”

Alabama point guard Andrew Steele said Tide players are excited to be in a position to control their own destiny 15 games into the conference season.

“One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to make the game bigger than what it is,” Steele said. “We respect Florida. They're good. But they're 12-3, we're 11-4. It's not like we're going to go in thinking we're in over our heads. We fully expect to go out and win.”

Like Florida, Alabama has built its foundation this season on defense. The Crimson Tide are second in the SEC in scoring defense at 58.2 ppg, behind just Florida (53.5 ppg). Alabama forces 15.2 turnovers per game and is third in the conference in steals at nine per game.

“They guard very well,” Donovan said. “They're a team that holds teams to low numbers of points.”

But most of Alabama's problems this season have centered around the offensive end. The Tide don't shoot well from the perimeter (40.3 percent from the floor, 32.4 percent from 3-point range). Junior point guard Trevor Releford is emerging into a more consistent offensive player for Alabama, but the team lacks a second steady scoring option. As a result, the Crimson Tide are prone to scoring droughts. Alabama ranks 11th in the SEC in scoring offense at 63.5 ppg.

Florida is coming off a 64-58 loss Tuesday night at Tennessee, its third in its last seven games. The Gators have yet to lose two in a row this season. Florida should be bolstered by the expected returns of freshman shooting guard Michael Frazier II (48.9 percent from 3-point range) and junior forward Will Yeguete (6.3 rebounds per game).

“Obviously it's great to have those guys back,” Murphy said. “You know, it gives us back a full team, at full strength … but we can't expect too much out of those guys. Everybody's got to stay on edge, continue to stay focused and do what they're doing.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Kenny Boynton 6-2 Sr. 12.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Mike Rosario 6-3 Sr. 13.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg

G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Jr. 9.0 ppg, 5.4 apg

F Erik Murphy 6-10 Sr. 12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg

C Patric Young 6-9 Jr. 10.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg

ALABAMA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Trevor Lacey 6-3 So. 11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg

G Trevor Releford 6-0 Jr. 15.6 ppg, 2.7 apg

G Levi Randolph 6-5 So. 7.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg

F Rodney Cooper 6-6 So. 11.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg

C Moussa Gueye 7-0 Jr. 1.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg

Notes: Florida returns home, where the Gators are 13-0 this season. … Florida coach Billy Donovan is facing Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who served as an assistant under Donovan for 12 years at Marshall and UF. Donovan is 4-0 against Grant and 10-2 all-time facing his former assistants. … Florida ranks third in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 53.1 points per game. The Gators have held 11 opponents under 50 points and 19 opponents under 60 points. At home, the Gators are allowing just 49.9 ppg. … The Gators are shooting an SEC-high 38.4 percent from 3-point range while making 8.7 3-pointers per game. But the Gators have slumped of late, shooting just 30.1 percent from beyond the arc (22 of 73) over their last three games. … Florida senior guard Kenny Boynton (1,925 career points) is three points shy of tying Andrew Moten (1,930 points) for second on UF's all-time scoring list. … Alabama has won eight of its 15 SEC games by single-digits and is 8-2 in games decided by five points or less. … The Tide are holding opponents to 40.3 percent from the floor and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. … Releford is averaging 24.8 ppg and 3.3 apg over his last three games for Alabama. “When he's locked in, he's as good as any guard in this league,” Grant said. “He's been really focused here of late.”

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