UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Gators eye perfect record in SEC play
Published: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 9:39 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't like his players to peek ahead.
Who: No. 1 Florida Gators (27-2, 16-0 SEC) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (11-18, 4-12)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
But with a chance for a perfect conference record for the No. 1 Gators still attainable, Florida senior center Patric Young let some of those thoughts slip in preparation for tonight's game at South Carolina.
“I'm really just focused on this game and hopefully going into the history books as a team that can go 18-0 in conference,” Young said. “That's our goal right now, so we're just worried about South Carolina right now and just trying to make this the best year possible with this team we have, with this team that will never be together again ever.”
The Gators (27-2, 16-0 SEC) can become the first team in SEC history to finish an 18-game conference schedule undefeated with back-to-back wins over South Carolina and Kentucky. Three teams have finished 17-1 in SEC play — Kentucky in 1970, LSU in 1981 and Kentucky again in 1989. Before the league expanded back to an 18-game schedule with the addition of Texas A&M and Missouri, Kentucky went a perfect 16-0 three times in 1996, 2003 and 2012.
Florida retained its spot as No. 1 in the country for the second straight week after extending its winning streak to 21 straight games with a 79-61 win Saturday over LSU. Donovan said 18-0 talk isn't taboo around the UF basketball complex, though he wants his team's focus on the Gamecocks.
“There's still things out there in front of our team,” Donovan said. “I think going into this last game against LSU, these guys putting their footprints on our program is a good thing. They've been a part of three out of four SEC championships, these seniors. This group of guys has won more regular-season games than any team in the history of this program, and there's been some good teams here.”
Florida began its quest for conference perfection with a 74-58 win over the Gamecocks in its SEC opener. South Carolina lost its first six SEC games, but has improved of late. The Gamecocks are 3-3 in their last six games, including a 72-67 upset of Kentucky at the Colonial Life Arena last Saturday.
“They're doing a lot more defensively,” Donovan said. “They're playing box-and-one, they're playing triangle-and-two, they're playing zone, they're playing man, they're playing three-quarter court and they're playing full court pressing. We're going to have to deal with a lot of changing defenses.”
Senior forward Casey Prather said it didn't take South Carolina's upset of Kentucky to get UF's attention.
“We knew they were a good team from the first time we played them,” Prather said. “We don't go into games taking teams lightly. We already were kind of aware of it whether they beat Kentucky or not.”
As part of their current 21-game win streak, the Gators have won a school-record eight straight on the road. Florida's eight-game road win streak is the third longest in the country, behind just Wichita State (12) and Stephen F. Austin (12).
There have been some close calls on the road. The Gators needed overtime to win at Arkansas (84-82), had to score six straight points in the final two minutes to win at Auburn (68-61) and needed a missed 3-pointer in the closing seconds to win at Vanderbilt (57-54).
Having four senior starters have helped the Gators weather some tough stretches on the road, but Donovan said experience hasn't been the lone reason for UF's road success. Overall, the Gators are 9-2 on the road this season.
“You can have all the experience in the world that you want on the road, you can have all those kind of things, but at the same time, if you don't play and play well it's really, really hard to win on the road,” Donovan said. “I don't care who you play against or where you play. There's a focus and intensity that you need, and if you don't come with that intensity and focus, you're putting yourself in a position to lose.”
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 13.4 ppg, 3.9 apg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 14.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg
SOUTH CAROLINA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Fr. 13.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg
G Brenton Williams 5-11 Sr. 15.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg
F Michael Carrera 6-5 So. 6.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg
F Mindaugas Kacinas 6-7 So. 5.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg
F Demetrius Henry 6-9 Fr. 4.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg
Notes: Florida leads the all-time series against South Carolina 41-22 and is 25-11 against the Gamecocks under Billy Donovan. The Gators have won five straight in the series and 12 of the last 15 meetings. … Florida's 27 wins are the most in the regular season in school history, surpassing UF's 26-5 mark during the 2006-07 regular season. … Florida is attempting to become the fourth team in league history to win 17 conference games. Kentucky reached 17 wins in 1970 and 1986, while LSU won 17 games in 1981. … Florida sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith is averaging 17.5 ppg and 5.5 rebounds per game off the bench over his last two games. … The Gators enter their matchup against South Carolina first in the SEC and seventh in the nation in scoring defense at 58.7 points per game. … South Carolina senior guard Brenton Williams, a former standout at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, scored 24 points to lead South Carolina to a 72-67 upset of No. 17 Kentucky. Williams leads the SEC in free-throw percentage at 95.3 percent . … Second-year South Carolina coach Frank Martin was a former coach at Miami High, where he coached former Gator standouts Udonis Haslem and Brent Wright. … South Carolina guard Tyrone Johnson, who scored 12 points in Florida's SEC opening 74-58 win over South Carolina last Jan. 8, is out for the season with a broken foot.
Three things to watch
1. The 3-point line
Florida is coming off making a season-high 13 3-pointers in its 79-61 win over LSU. But the Gators will face a challenge against a South Carolina team that leads the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage at 36.8 percent. Look for the Gators to get out on the perimeter and aggressively defend South Carolina guards Brenton Williams and Sindarius Thornwell, who are capable 3-point shooters. Williams is shooting 42.9 percent (78-182) from beyond the arc this season.
2. Controlling the glass
Besides its 3-point shooting, South Carolina also has excelled on the offensive glass this season. The Gamecocks rank fourth in the SEC and 13th in the nation with 13.4 offensive rebounds per game. Senior center Patric Young, senior forward Will Yeguete and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith will need to be at their best on the boards for the Gators to limit South Carolina second-chance scoring opportunities.
3. More time for Chris Walker
On Monday, Florida coach Billy Donovan talked about the possibility of expanding the role of freshman McDonald's All-American forward Chris Walker. Against LSU, the 6-foot-10 Walker played a season-high 14 minutes with two points, six rebounds and a blocked shot. Donovan said that how long Walker stays on the court will depend on how much he progresses defensively. “A lot of it is going to be predicated on ... is he picking things up that he needs to pick up,” Donovan said. “You know, I can control the offensive part of him and what we're running and what we're doing. I can't control what the other team is running against him and what they're doing and whether or not he can handle that.”