Everywhere you looked in sports media on Monday, Marcus Smart was front and center. Smart, an Oklahoma State sophomore, lost his cool at Texas Tech where he shoved a fan after some sort of verbal assault. What is unclear is what was actually screamed at Smart by Texas Tech superfan Jeff Orr, but what you see in the video clip is not what Florida head coach Billy Donovan wants you to base your opinion of Smart upon.
“It’s really an unfortunate situation, everything that happened.” Donovan said at his Monday media event. “You don’t know what’s said, what happened. Obviously I think as (Oklahoma State head coach) Travis (Ford) mentioned he crossed the line; it’s something he shouldn’t have done. But I think to echo what Travis said: he is a great kid. I never had one bit of a problem with him, coaching him for the two years with Team USA.”
Donovan coached Smart last summer when he averaged 9.6 points per game and shot 50% from the field as Team US went 9-0 to win the gold medal at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Prague So besides the red white and blue link to its coach, what does the Smart situation have to do with Florida?
It’s no secret that fan etiquette has seen a decline year after year. Ugly incidents from a vocal minority spoil the image of most of the paying patrons at sporting events across the nation. A ticket may afford you a seat, but some believe it gives them the right to say whatever they please to players and coaches on the field of play.
This week Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC) will play in two of the most emotionally charged environments they’ll enter all season. Tonight they will face Tennessee (15-8, 6-4 SEC) in Knoxville in front of more than 21,000 (7 p.m., ESPN) and Saturday they square off against bitter rival Kentucky in Rupp Arena in front of 23,500 more rabid fans. That means without a doubt insults, obscenities and vitriol will be lobbed at them from some in the stands. Although the Smart situation has placed fan-player interaction in the forefront of the news cycle, Donovan says there will be no change in how he mentally prepares his team for road games.
“Anything else that takes us out of doing our job is just a distraction that is going to put us in a position where we’re not going to play as well as we need to play,” Donovan said. “I think some of our guys have been in some tough venues, tough road games and this will be no different on Tuesday for us.”
Senior Scottie Wilbekin has seen Thompson-Boling at its most raucous, like last year when a then No. 8 Florida squad was defeated almost single-handedly by guard Jordan McRae who scored 27 points (the most by any UF opponent in the 2012-2013 season).
As a leader, Wilbekin is tasked with bringing younger players along, and that includes helping them with tough road tests.
“If I say anything to them,” he said. “It’s just to stay focused. It doesn’t matter what they say. They’re just fans and they’re not going to impact. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”
Wilbekin called Tennesee fans “some of the top fans in the SEC,” and said getting a win in Knoxville was “the most important thing right now.”
Fellow senior Will Yeguete echoed the party line about how to deal with opposing fanbases. He says he can’t recall the worst thing that’s been yelled at him in a road environment because “I don’t listen to that stuff.”
“I’ve been here for four years,” Yeguete said. “So just doing the same thing we’ve been doing. Coach D just has us focusing on what’s going on through the lines and what we have to do to win the game.”
With a big week of high intensity road games ahead, the plan is simple: control what you can control, “inside the lines” of course.
“You want to see your fans root for your team and encourage your team as best they can,” Donovan said. “Sometimes, that doesn’t happen and that sometimes is unfortunate. But you can’t be responsible for what somebody else is saying or doing because you’ve got to be responsible for what you’re doing. I think that’s the message for us.”
GAME NOTES: Florida has won 15 games in a row. This is the fifth 15-game winning streak in the Billy Donovan era. The school record is 17 consecutive wins … Florida’s 21-2 start to the season is the second best in school history … With 10 points, Patric Young will pass Joakim Noah for 39th place on Florida’s all-time scoring list … Michael Frazier needs six points to reach the 500-point milestone … The Gators have held nine of 10 SEC opponents to 69 or fewer points. The Gators held Tennessee to 41 wen the two teams met at the O-Dome a couple of weeks ago.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
FLORIDA (21-2, 10-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)
TENNESSEE (15-8, 6-4 SEC): Jarnell Stokes (6-8, 260, JR); Jeronne Maymon (6-8, 260, RSR); Josh Richardson (6-6, 196, JR); Darius Thompson (6-5, 181, FR); Jordan McRae (6-6, 185, SR)