Every single game on the road is potentially a storm the court game for the Florida Gators. That’s what happens when you’re the NCAA champs and you’re ranked number one in the nation. Lose on the road and it’s just too tempting for revved up fans of the home team to storm the court. It’s already happened once at Florida State earlier in the year.
Going into super-charged environments is a fact of life now for Coach Billy Donovan’s team, 17-2 overall and 4-0 in the tough Southeastern Conference. Donovan knows the Gators are going to get everybody’s best shot in a league where any road win is a good win. Florida hits the road twice this week, at Mississippi State (11-6, 2-2) in Starkville Wednesday night and then Saturday at Auburn (12-8, 2-3). Donovan’s expecting a full house at both places with a crowd amped and ready to see the home boys knock off the nation’s top ranked team.
“It’s hard to go on the road in this league and win,” said Donovan at his Monday media luncheon. “It’s really, really difficult and you try to go out there and win and play to the best of your ability.”
Mississippi State’s Humphrey Coliseum is one of the SEC’s more difficult environments. The Bulldogs play everybody tough, but they’re particularly hard to handle in Starkville where their crowd arrives early and by game time is already at a fever pitch.
“I think Wednesday night we’re going to be walking out in a very hostile environment, in a very difficult place to play,” said Donovan. “I think there will be great enthusiasm in the arena for the game. They are a basketball team that is playing very, very well. If you look at their conference game on the road, at Kentucky, Tennessee and some of the places they’ve played, they’re really putting themselves in great positions to win.”
The Humphrey Coliseum environment is one that’s never been particularly friendly to the Gators. It will probably rank very similar to the one Florida faced in Tallahassee where FSU fed off the high energy level of its crowd. For the Gators to succeed in such a hostile setting, first they will have to retain their composure early in the game when the crowd is at its loudest. Secondly, they will have stay even with Mississippi State until the emotional bubble bursts, bringing both teams to the same level.
“There is going to be an emotional level by Mississippi State that we’re going to have to match or weather to start the game and then we’re going to have to settle in,” he said. “I’ve said before that there are times where teams are at such a high emotional level it’s hard to keep at that level for 40 minutes, but they come out at that level and that place is going to be energized and we’ve got to keep our minds focused on every possession to do what we’ve got to do and we’re also going to have to rely on each other.”
The Bulldogs have lost six games so far but that’s far more indicative of how good and balanced the SEC is rather than an indication that Mississippi State is one of those teams that will be battling for a chance to play in the NIT at season’s end. Mississippi State is 11-6 on the season, 2-2 in the conference. The Gators are the only SEC team that’s still perfect (4-0) in league play while Kentucky is the only SEC team with only one league loss.
“They’ve got six losses on the year and the six losses they have, I think they’ve been by less than six points per game,” said Donovan. “No one’s really beaten them.”
This is a story that repeats itself throughout the Southeastern Conference where it seems that every team has plenty of veteran players loaded with experience. Tough, experienced teams don’t go down easily and they make every game a grind.
Wins at home are tough in the SEC. Wins on the road are extremely difficult.
“That’s why RPI-wise, I think our leagues one of the better ones in the country because from top to bottom, the league is really, really difficult,” he said. “I think Mississippi State is one of those teams that you can put into that category that no one was talking about to start the year, but look at their talent level and their experience level and they’re very, very good.”
The talent is good at Mississippi State, starting with its big, physical point guard JaMont Gordon, one of the SEC’s most complete players. Gordon averages 15.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
“He’s a really talented player and a major force in the backcourt,” said Donovan.
Gordon is complemented in the backcourt by Barry Stewart (12.1 points per game) and Reginald Delk (10.2). Delk’s twin brother, Richard, comes off the bench to average 7.2 points per game.
Charles Rhodes is Mississippi State’s best front court player. He’s 6-8, 240, averaging 11.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Dietric Slater is only 6-3, but he plays forward and uses quickness and leaping ability to average eight points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Freshmen Jarvis Varnado and sophomore Vernon Goodridge, a pair of 6-9s, provide the front court depth.
“They’ve just got a lot of experienced guys that are good players,” said Donovan. “They have good talented players. It’s hard to go on the road in this league and win. It’s really, really difficult and you try to go out there and win and play to the best of your ability. There are certain things you need to do. Making shots is something that always makes you look like you’re playing well on the road, but what’s really going to win the game are hustle plays and toughness and giving yourself an opportunity, putting yourself in a position to win.”
GATOR NOTES: Lee Humphrey has hit 17 of his 24 three pointers in Southeastern Conference play after a 3-4 outing in the win over Ole Miss. For the season, Humphrey is shooting 46.3 percent from the three-point stripe and 51.1 percent overall … As a team, the Gators are shooting 54.7 percent, which leads the nation … All five Gators are averaging double figures, led by Taurean Green (13.6). Joakim Noah averages 12.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Corey Brewer is averaging 12.3 points per game while Al Horford is averaging 12.0 and Humphrey is averaging 10.5 … Florida has won its last 10 games.