On the final weekend of the regular season, Auburn upset Southeastern Conference champ LSU and Alabama stunned Eastern Division champion Tennessee on a last second shot. Both games offered a lucid reminder that there is no such thing as a clear cut favorite heading into the SEC Tournament, which begins in Tampa on Thursday.
The closest thing to a dominant team this year has been LSU, which took the SEC championship with a 13-3 record, but the Tigers head into Tampa on the wave of a two-game losing streak. Were those losses to Vanderbilt and Auburn a case of a team on cruise control, resting its engines before the tournament grind, or an indicator that a 16-game conference schedule has taken its toll and there is no more gas in the tank?
LSU’s two losses at the end of the year and Tennessee’s loss to Alabama weren’t expected, yet at the same time, how could anyone be surprised? After all, the worst team in the league (Arkansas) beat both Texas and national championship contender Oklahoma in the pre-conference portion of the schedule and then laid a 2-14 egg during the SEC slate.
So after an SEC schedule wacky enough that Kentucky lost four games at Rupp Arena all 12 teams get a clean slate and a fresh start in Tampa where the memories of last year’s SEC Tournament should cause a measure of trepidation for the teams at the top and a ray of hope for the bottom feeders. Last year’s tournament, finished at Georgia Tech after a Friday night tornado ripped a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome, was won by Georgia, which came to Atlanta in last place.
“I don’t think there is any question, based on what happened last year with Georgia,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan at his Monday morning press conference. “No one could have ever predicted Georgia. Could that happen again this year? Absolutely.”
Florida (22-9, 9-7 SEC East) is the third seed in the Eastern Division and five of those losses were by six points or less. The fine line between wins and losses is positive proof that the Gators can beat any team in the league. If they string together four straight games in which they hit some shots and play defense like they did in beating Kentucky Saturday afternoon, they are more than capable of winning four games in a row.
Donovan knows the Gators are capable of winning the tournament but because he has a team that has what he calls “a very short attention span,” he can’t afford to have his team looking any further than Thursday when they face Arkansas (14-15, 2-14 SEC West), the last place team from the Western Division and a team the Gators have already beaten once. Back in January, the Gators disposed of the Razorbacks, 80-65, in Gainesville.
“This is my perspective: I don’t think you talk about winning [the tournament],” Donovan said. “You talk about trying to play your very basketball to beat Arkansas. You can’t win anything unless you take care of your first game.”
Last year the Gators needed to win their first game in the SEC Tournament to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. Instead of taking care of business on the first day, the Gators fell behind Alabama by 28 points in the first half, lost the game by 11 and wound up in the NIT. Florida arrives at this year’s tournament under similar circumstances. Last year one win would have probably gotten the Gators into the NCAA. This year it will take at least two, which means putting Arkansas away in game one and then beating Auburn (21-10, 10-6 SEC West), the hottest team in the league and the number two seed from the Western Division.
Getting into the NCAA will take care of itself if the Gators take care of business in Tampa. Making sure their full focus is on Arkansas is Donovan’s priority.
“Our tournament … the whole tournament … the SEC Tournament championship right now is against Arkansas because you have to win in order to advance because if you don’t win you go home so it is not even about to me whether or not it is open or not open,” Donovan said. “The main focus for us is we have to play our best basketball Thursday night at 9:45. That is really all this comes down to me as a coach is our total focus and energy towards that.”
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If the Gators are going to make any kind of run in the SEC Tournament they will have to get production from point guard Nick Calathes, who had what Donovan termed a great first half against Kentucky only to have some problems in the second half. Calathes finished the game with seven points, five rebounds and seven assists but he also turned the ball over seven times and took a few second half shots that could best be termed ill-advised.
Donovan said that Calathes is Florida’s most talented player but he has to learn how to handle things better when a team tries to take him out of the game. Kentucky’s defensive focus was on taking Calathes out as a scorer and in the second half, Calathes tried to force the issue.
“We in the first 15 minutes of the game against Kentucky, he was phenomenal,” Donovan said. “He played as good of basketball as he had played all year. Then what happened was he started to try to do too much and when he started to do too much it didn’t help us. Sometimes he has got to be one of those guys that says you know what, they have two guys guarding me right now and someone else is going to be open and I don’t need to make any plays here.
“We started off the game making five of our first six shots, things were going good. He may have to look at this and say you know what, I don’t need to score and I don’t need a lot of assists. I almost need to be a little bit of a decoy. Now can you as a player handle being a decoy?”
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The Gators will work with what is essentially an eight-man team in the SEC Tournament now that freshman power forward Allan Chaney is on the injured list again. Chaney, who missed almost the entire month of February with a stress fracture in his heel, saw three minutes of action last week in Starkville against Mississippi State, but it was enough to re-aggravate the injury.
Freshman Eloy Vargas will be suited up for the Gators, but he hasn’t played since stepping in for one minute against Alabama on February 18. Vargas had surgery on his ankle for bone spurs back in the summer but his recovery took longer than expected. He missed all of preseason conditioning and strength training because of the injury and he’s been trying to catch up ever since.
Vargas, Chaney and freshman Kenny Kadji were all highly regarded prospects and all signed before Marreese Speights put together a good enough sophomore season last year that elevated him into the first round of the draft. They were expected to apprentice under Speights when they were signed but when Speights left for the NBA it was hoped the three freshmen could combine for quality minutes every game, giving some semblance of a rotation down low.
“The thing that has been tough is we obviously knew going into this year, even if Speights was back, that we needed help across the front line,” Donovan said. “So, with Chaney, Vargas, and Kadji, we felt like we were really trying to address those issues up front and (Alex) Tyus, (Dan) Werner, and (Chandler) Parsons need some more help. They need more of a level of consistency. Now Chaney hasn’t been able to play and right now Eloy has got a long, long way to go. I am just telling it like it is. It is not necessarily his foot condition anymore, it is his overall conditioning.”