The wakeup call for Tuesday night came early for the #1-ranked Florida Gators (27-2, 16-0 SEC). In case there was anyone on the roster thinking past Southeastern Conference bottom feeder South Carolina (11-18, 4-12) to next Saturday’s Senior Day when Kentucky (21-8, 11-5 SEC) comes to town, the Gamecocks sent a message so loud and so clear that Billy Donovan won’t have to dig into his motivational bag of tricks Tuesday night.
By knocking off #17 Kentucky at Colonial Life Arena, South Carolina let the Gators know that nothing will come easy when they travel to Columbia. That win over Kentucky was certainly sweet for Frank Martin and his very young Gamecocks, but beating the nation’s #1 team would make a statement that the South Carolina program is building a firm foundation for future success.
When you’re ranked #1, the potential for an upset is there any time you walk on the court. Donovan and the Gators know they will get their opponent’s best shot every night. What Donovan wants is for the Gators to answer back with their best shot.
What Donovan doesn’t want is for the Gators to adapt a bunker mentality this late in the season. With the #1 ranking comes what that great philosopher Ron Zook would call “noise in the system.” In Florida’s case, the noise means television analysts attempting to expose every flaw. It means constant reminders that the Gators have a 21-game winning streak overall and a 31-game home court winning streak. It means talk of RPI, #1-seedings and bracketology.
Donovan is quick to point out that all those things have nothing to do with who the Gators are and what they have done to get to this point in the season. He’s all about controlling the things that can be controlled and eliminating the things that can’t.
“I don’t know if our guys even know what RPI is,” Donovan said Saturday night after the Gators had destroyed LSU, 79-61. “You want to be playing well at this time of the year. I think the biggest thing I’ve been trying to get across is when you get to this point of the season you don’t want to be playing like you’re trying to protect something where you’re back on your heels – we don’t want to lose #1 and we don’t want to lose at home and we want to keep this streak going. Once you get into trying to avoid things and prevent things from happening, inevitably you get tight, you get frozen and you don’t play.”
When the Gators practiced Sunday and when they practice again Monday before leaving for Columbia, Donovan will take the team back to ground zero and build them back up. The win over LSU is a thing of the past and the only thing that is important is the South Carolina Gamecocks. If the process works as it has all season long, the Gators will be in an attack mode rather than one of trying to defend something.
MORE MINUTES FOR CHRIS WALKER: Those 14 minutes he played against LSU were a glimpse of what Chris Walker can bring to the table as the regular season comes to an end and the Gators go into a tournament mode. Against LSU, Walker scored two points on a nice power through move in which he got the ball in the basket even though he was fouled hard. He also had five rebounds and a steal, but the play that got everyone’s attention was his blocked shot when he towered over two players to erase what seemed to be a wide open look at the basket.
“It was good to see Chris get some more minutes,” Donovan said. “This was a good game for him because LSU is a great high-low team offensively and they have a lot of weapons. It’s pretty easy for Chris. He’s going to be playing post defense or standing at the high post. This was a good game for him where he could inject some of his athleticism, rebounding and some of those things.”
If Walker can give the Gators 10 minutes off the bench per game the rest of the way, it will give Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith valuable minutes of rest, which certainly can’t hurt because once tournament play begins, typically games get more physical and more fouls are called.
SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Right now it’s looking like Scottie Wilbekin will be a runaway choice for the honor. Athlon is the only preseason magazine that gave Wilbekin any love, picking him second team All-SEC and Defensive Player of the Year. Everybody else had Kentucky freshman Julius Randle as the preseason Player of the Year.
ALL-SEC: Wilbekin and Patric Young will almost certainly make first team All-SEC. Casey Prather probably should make first team, but he will probably wind up on the second unit. Michael Frazier could also wind up on the second team although third team is more likely.
ALL-SEC PREDICTIONS: This is a prediction of how both the coaches and Associate Press will vote for All-SEC.
First team: Scottie Wilbekin, Florida (6-2, 176, SR); Patric Young, Florida (6-9, 240, SR); Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee (6-8, 250, JR); Trevor Releford, Alabama (6-0, 190, SR); Jabari Brown, Missouri (6-5, 214, JR)
Second team: Casey Prather, Florida (6-6, 212, SR); Julius Randle, Kentucky (6-9, 250, FR); Chris Denson, Auburn (6-2, 181, SR); Rod Odom, Vanderbilt (6-9, 212, SR); Johnny O’Bryant, LSU (6-9, 256, JR)
Third team: Michael Qualls, Arkansas (6-6, 210, JR); Marshall Henderson (6-2, 177, SR); Jordan McRae, Tennessee (6-6, 185, SR); Jordan Clarkson, Missouri (6-5, 193, JR); Michael Frazier, Florida (6-4, 199, SO)
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: It should go to Dorian Finney-Smith. There isn’t a more versatile player in the league. Finney-Smith has played all five positions in the same game numerous times. He’s Florida’s leading rebounder (6.9) and he’s close to double figures scoring (9.6).
COACH OF THE YEAR: If anyone but Donovan gets it, it’s a travesty. Georgia’s Mark Fox has done the second best job of any coach in the league but as nicely as he has brought Georgia together, what he’s done pales in comparison to Donovan.
SEC TOURNAMENT: Florida gets the #1 seed and a double bye, which means the Gators won’t have to play their first game in the SEC Tournament until Friday, March 14. Kentucky only needs one win this week to clinch the #2 but the Wildcats will be no worse than #3. If Kentucky were to lose twice and Arkansas wins out, the Razorbacks would be the #2. Tennessee and Missouri will battle it out for the fourth double bye spot.
SEC POST SEASON OUTLOOK: The SEC has only two surefire teams that will make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s looking more and more like the league will get four, possibly five. Florida could earn the overall #1 seed for the entire NCAA Tournament. Unless Kentucky plays well this week and then turns in a strong performance in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats will probably drop to a 7-10 seed. Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee are all sitting on the NCAA bubble right now. At least one of the three will have to solidify its position with a good showing at the SEC Tournament.
IN FOR SURE
1. Florida (27-2, 16-0 SEC): If the Gators win out this week (at South Carolina Tuesday, Kentucky at home Saturday), they become the first team ever to go through an 18-game SEC slate unbeaten. There is motivation. South Carolina’s win over Kentucky was a wakeup call to ensure UF will be fully focused Tuesday and beating Kentucky on Senior Day would make the season all the sweeter.
2. Kentucky (21-8, 11-5 SEC): The Wildcats are in even if they tank the rest of the way. The NCAA is well aware that they can plug in Kentucky in any regional and assure itself of a sellout. Kentucky needs to split this week’s games (Alabama and at Florida) to ensure a #2 seed at the SEC Tournament.
ONE FOOT IN THE DOOR
1. Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 SEC): The Razorbacks have won five in a row and they have two winnable games this week (Ole Miss and at Alabama). Two wins gets them in for sure and by virtue of that sweep of Kentucky, the Razorbacks might get in even with a split.
2. Tennessee (18-11, 9-7 SEC): There are no gimmes on the schedule. Tennessee is capable of losing at Auburn and if Missouri hits the 3-ball, it’s capable of winning that final game in Knoxville next Saturday. The Vols have to get at least a split to get in. A 9-9 record in the SEC won’t get them in the NCAA Tournament even with that 35-point win over ACC champ Virginia.
3. Missouri (20-9, 8-8 SEC): Missouri can get in for sure with wins against Texas A&M and at Tennessee. A split and the Tigers are going to have to win one, perhaps two in the SEC Tournament.
1. Georgia (16-12, 10-6 SEC): Joe Lunardi calls Georgia “the tallest midget in the circus.” Even if the Bulldogs beat Mississippi State and win at LSU, the best non-conference win is Wofford. The only way the Bulldogs get to the NCAA is to win the SEC Tournament. But, all things considered, the NIT is an accomplishment for this team.
2. Ole Miss (17-12, 8-8 SEC): There are no signature wins, not in the non-conference or conference portions of the schedule. There are losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M on the conference slate. The last two games are at Arkansas and Vanderbilt. The only way the Rebels make the big dance is to win the SEC Tournament for a second straight year.
3. LSU (17-11, 8-8 SEC): The lack of a signature win outside the conference hurts and that loss to Rhode Island is like a giant pimple on the end of the LSU nose. The win over Kentucky helps but even with wins this week against Vandy on the road and Georgia won’t do it. But, 10-8 in the SEC and a couple of SEC Tournament wins could squeeze the Tigers in. Don’t count on it, though. Hello NIT.
ON THE HOT SEAT
ANTHONY GRANT, Alabama (12-17, 6-10 SEC): Wins over Missouri and Auburn in the last three games with a team depleted by the loss of big man Nick Jacobs might have saved Grant’s job. If he can get a split this week (at Kentucky, Arkansas at home) he will ensure the Crimson Tide doesn’t lose 20 this season. If the people in the administration take into account that Grant didn’t have time to replace the departed Trevor Langford (transferred to NC State) and Devonta Pollard (legal issues) last May and then look at who’s coming back next year plus the incoming freshman class, then Grant will be back next season. Alabama has played the third toughest schedule in the country.
TONY BARBEE, Auburn (13-14, 5-11 SEC): Auburn is much improved this year but boosters and the administration are hungry for a winner and Barbee hasn’t delivered one in four years on the job. Leading scorer Chris Denson will graduate as will steady Allen Payne and the recruits are decent but don’t inspire the imagination. Unless he pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a split this week (Tennessee at home, Texas A&M on the road) this could come down to a coin flip whether Barbee stays or goes.
BILLY KENNEDY, Texas A&M (17-12, 8-8 SEC): This is going to be a tough call. Kennedy has a winning season going and with a win, the Aggies will make somebody’s post season tournament but the Aggies just aren’t that good. Compounding the problem is there were a lot of 20-win seasons before Kennedy arrived, none since his arrival, and the administration and fans expect more. Kennedy has Parkinson’s disease so nobody wants a messy scene. An offer of a cushy position within the school could evoke a “stepping down for medical reasons” resignation.