UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Gators chasing greatness in final SEC stretch
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 6:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 at 8:05 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan is never short on buzz words he uses to motivate his team.
Who: No. 1 Florida Gators (26-2, 15-0 SEC) vs. LSU Tigers (17-10, 8-7)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
So when Arkansas knocked off Kentucky in overtime Thursday night, clinching Florida's third Southeastern Conference regular-season title in the last four years, Donovan texted his players to pass along congratulations.
But Donovan added a slogan to keep his players from becoming complacent.
“Coach D also told us that we need to chase greatness and what happened had nothing to do with us,” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II. “We still have a game tomorrow that we need to focus on and that we're going to try and win.”
That chase will continue on Saturday when the No. 1 Gators take a 20-game winning streak into their matchup with LSU. Florida still has plenty to play for, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the chance to become the first SEC team to go undefeated through an 18-game conference schedule.
“I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team,” Donovan said.
And unlike an NFL team that's clinched a bye in the playoffs, don't expect Donovan to hold back minutes of his players on account of resting them for the SEC or NCAA tournaments. The Gators will be bolstered by the return of freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who sat out UF's last three games with a groin strain. Donovan said from a health standpoint, the Gators are “as good as they can be right now.”
“We don't have anything significantly ailing,” Donovan said. “But I think everybody's probably somewhat banged up. Everybody's probably dealing with sore knees, lower backs, tendinitis, those kind of things that are wear-and-tear injuries. But we can adjust practice, and we can do things to kind of get them back physically.”
Donovan acknowledged that “it's always special” to win an SEC title. The Gators have won six SEC regular-season titles in 18 seasons under Donovan and four outright SEC regular-season crowns since 2007.
“I am proud of whatever the number is that we've been able to do over the eight years, not just for this group, but for the groups before them,” Donovan said. “To me, competing and playing for championships is a big deal.”
Said Frazier: “It's great to have that honor. But we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals.”
For now, Donovan is concerned about the challenges that LSU presents. While the Tigers have struggled on the road this season (2-7), they have proven capable of rising to the occasion in big moments. Last week, LSU took Kentucky to overtime at Rupp Arena before falling 77-76 on a last-second putback by Kentucky freshman center Julius Randle.
Donovan pointed out that LSU is among the league leaders in scoring offense (third, 77.3 points per game) and assists (second, 14.7 assists per game).
“They are a really, really talented team,” Donovan said. “I would say their basketball team has a lot of answers at a lot of different spots, and they have just about six guys averaging double-figure points. They are an unselfish team.
“They're just about in the top four and five of every offensive statistical category. Defensively, we'll have our hands full.”
1989 team honored
During Saturday's game against LSU, Florida will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its 1989 team, which won the first SEC basketball title in school history.
The 1989 team finished 21-13 overall and 13-5 in the SEC to win the regular-season crown. The Gators reached the NCAA Tournament that season but lost to Colorado State in the first round (68-46).
Team captain Clifford Lett is among players expected to attend the ceremony. The team was coached by Norm Sloan, who died in 2003. Sadly, another key member of UF's 1989 squad, center Dwayne Schintzius, died in 2012 at 43 due to complications from leukemia.
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 13.5 ppg, 3.9 apg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 14.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg
LSU PROBABLE STARTERS
G Shavon Coleman 6-5 Sr. 9.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg
G Anthony Hickey 5-11 Jr. 9.3 ppg, 3.8 apg
F Jarell Martin 6-9 Fr. 10.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg
F Jordan Mickey 6-8 Fr. 13.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg
C Johnny O'Bryant III 6-9 Jr. 15.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Notes: Florida returns to the O'Connell Center, where it has won 30 straight. … The Gators are 42-60 all-time against LSU and 13-8 against the Tigers under Billy Donovan. … Florida is 13-2 in games decided by single digits and 6-1 in games decided by five points or less. … Florida sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, in the running for the SEC's sixth man of the year award, is averaging 9.3 points and a team-high 7.1 rebounds off the bench. … The Gators are first in the SEC and eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 58.6 points per game. … LSU has won two of its last three games, with the lone loss coming in overtime at Kentucky. … LSU freshman forward Jordan Mickey leads the SEC in blocked shots at 3.3 per game. … LSU senior guard Andre Stringer, another SEC sixth man candidate, is averaging 11.9 ppg and 2.8 apg off the bench. … Florida's 15 SEC wins are the most in one season in school history.
Three things to watch
1. LSU's frontline
Florida coach Billy Donovan said matching up with LSU's frontcourt is a “major concern.” With junior center Johnny O'Bryant III, freshman forward Jordan Mickey and freshman forward Jarell Martin up front, LSU ranks second in the SEC in blocked shots (6.3 bpg) and sixth in rebounding margin (plus-4.1). “O'Bryant is back and he was clearly as good as any frontcourt player in the league last year,” Donovan said. “Now, (LSU) adds Martin, who is really a versatile forward. Big and strong, shoots it, can score, makes 3s, was 4-for-5 against (Texas) A&M from the 3-point line. And now you can take a guy like Mickey, who's the league leader in shot blocking, a lot like Anthony Davis was for Kentucky a few years ago where he can really, really alter the game around the basket. Now O'Bryant has got some legitimate guys around him.” O'Bryant is prone to foul trouble, especially on the road, so look for Florida to try to challenge him inside early in an effort to draw some fouls.
2. Taking care of the ball
LSU also is second in the SEC in steals (8.2 pg) with ball-hawking point guard Anthony Hickey always capable of creating turnovers. It will be important for Florida starting guards Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II to stay strong with the ball when LSU throws some pressure defense at them. “The coach emphasized to us yesterday they get a lot of steals, so we're going to have to do a good job taking care of the ball, executing on offense and getting stops on defense,” Frazier II said.
3. The free-throw line
LSU is a physical team that fouls early and often. The Tigers rank ninth in the SEC (and 191st in the nation) in fouls at 19.4 per game. That should present plenty of opportunities at the free-throw line for the Gators. Florida has been better at the line of late, but took a step back with a 7 of 12 night from the line against Vanderbilt. For the season, Florida ranks ninth the SEC in free-throw shooting at 67.7 percent, but LSU is right behind in 10th at 67.3 percent.