If there is one team in which the No. 11 Florida Gators have had little trouble with over the years, it’s been the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Gators (10-2) have taken 15 of 18 from the Bulldogs (6-7) since 2004 and are in the midst of a current 10-game home win streak, a streak they will hope to continue at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the O’Connell Center.
For Florida, Wednesday will mark just the second time the team has played in its home confines since its Nov. 29 victory against Marquette. The Gators have never lost an SEC opener in the O’Dome, but UF coach Billy Donovan knows that his team will have it’s hands full with a tough Georgia team riding a four-game winning streak.
“They are really efficient on offense with what they do,” Donovan said on Monday. “Mark’s [Fox] teams always run great things offensively, always takes advantage of his personnel. They are a physical team.”
The Bulldogs will rely heavily on sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who last year as a freshman led the Bulldogs in scoring against the Gators with 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
According to Donovan, the Gators will certainly be keying on Caldwell-Pope, who is averaging a team-high 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Bulldogs.
“He is really a talented guy,” Donovan said of Georgia’s talented sophomore. He is a guy that was somewhat under the radar as a freshman last year because of (Bradley) Beal, (Michael Kidd-) Gilchrist, Anthony Davis. Those guys kind of dominated a lot of the talk about the freshmen inside of our league.
“But he was one of those guys that scored a lot last year and maybe didn’t get a whole lot of recognition.”
Donovan said the most obvious thing which stands out about Caldwell-Pope is how much of the team’s offense he is responsible for due to his shooting prowess. Florida’s defense was perhaps the highlight of the team’s successful early-season run, and the Gators will look to mitigate Caldwell-Pope’s scoring contributions by employing that same stifling defense.
Aside from senior forward Erik Murphy, who is nursing a broken rib, the Gators appear to not only be healthy, but quite rejuvenated after playing only a handful of games in the past month.
Donovan said that after a challenging stretch of practices, he not only sees an improved team, but one which is perhaps more in tune with what it will take to finish off the regular season in strong fashion.
“I think one of the things I’ve tried to do with these guys is get them to a place where I’ve taken them to their limits physically so they start to develop a mentality of pushing through difficulties, pushing through challenges,” Donovan said. “We’re going to need that kind of resiliency this year.”
The Gators will certainly need to be resilient throughout their conference stretch this season, but there is little doubt that the path to an SEC championship is a little smoother this time around.
Although conference newcomer Missouri and reigning national champion Kentucky are spotted on the Gators’ schedule twice, Florida has emerged as an early favorite to claim the league’s championship trophy after getting off to a hot start.
While such accolades are nice, Donovan said that his team would remain unfazed by the expectations. Donovan took it a step further when he stated that he doesn’t believe crowning a true regular season champion is even possible due to the changes in scheduling.
“I don’t think our guys are worried about (being favorites),” Donovan said. “I think for us it’s just trying to get the guys to understand that to me, the most important thing for me is the process. They have to embrace the process every single day.”