Just when you think the Gator basketball team has set every new standard imaginable they find yet another way to re-write the record book. Saturday in the O’Connell Center, Billy Donovan’s charges raced past the Tennessee Volunteers to improve to 8-0 in the SEC, making them the first group of Gators to ever reach the mid-season of the conference race with a perfect record.
Four years ago the Gators opened league play with seven straight wins before fading to 5-4 down the stretch.
Not even last year’s NCAA Champs dominated the SEC like this. At mid-season last year the Gators were 6-2 in the conference and finished with four losses in their next six SEC contests. It’s hard to believe it looking back, but the Gators were 8-6 in SEC action with two games to go. Somehow they began an eleven-game winning streak that carried them to the top of the college basketball mountain; starting with a win over Georgia.
It was against the Bulldogs that Florida began its run on the strength of a Joakim Noah showcase performance. Noah scored 37 points and grabbed eleven rebounds in Florida’s 77-66 win. While you may remember the game, I bet you didn’t remember that he did all that coming off the bench. Coach Donovan chose to start Adrian Moss on senior day, so Noah was a non-starter for the only time all season. The 37 points is the most any Gator has scored in the Donovan era and the most by any Gator in 25 years.
Minutes Played Not an Issue
There was a thread on the “insiders” last week about playing time and concern about the minutes individual Gators are playing, but I think Donovan is doing a great job of keep it under control. Taurean Green leads Florida, playing 34.6 minutes in SEC games, but there are ten other players in the conference playing more. That’s a drop of 1.2 minutes a game from last year’s SEC competition and should help Green’s legs to be fresher for the post-season.
The key to Green’s minutes on the floor remains the play of Walter Hodge who was sensational against the boys from Rocky Top. The sophomore combo-guard had a dozen points and three rebounds in 21 minutes against the Vols. As a result both Green (29 minutes) and Lee Humphrey (28) had a lesser work load. The more that happens, the better.
It would be additionally beneficial if Hodge could give UF those kinds of minutes in the SEC tournament where three straight games can have a lasting effect from a fatigue standpoint. I will always be convinced that Green’s 111 minutes in three days (37 mpg) in Nashville contributed to his miserable (14-51, .275) shooting in the NCAA Tournament.
A Week to Wrap Things Up
Acknowledging Yogi Berra’s truism that “it aint over till it’s over,” if the Gators go 2-0 this week, the SEC race is over. The Gators travel to Athens and Lexington for conference road games and a pair of wins would leave Florida at least three games ahead of the pack with six to go. Not even the most ardent Gator hater would be able to delude himself into thinking this team could go 2-4 down the stretch.
Against Georgia on Wednesday (hope you can get the pay per view telecast) Florida will be facing a team with an urgent need to win after losing back-to-back games to Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The Dawgs are 5-4 in the SEC and 13-8 overall which leaves them a long way from NCAA at-large consideration. A win over Florida would be their best chance of launching a tournament run.
As for Kentucky, well I wrote a few weeks back that the Wildcats were the team Florida had to be the most concerned about. That led to a pair of Kentucky losses and a couple of slices of humble pie. Yet, here at mid-season the closest team to UF is Kentucky. The ‘Cats are 6-2 in league play, two games back. Assuming Kentucky handles South Carolina Wednesday night, there should be one heck of an atmosphere in Rupp Arena Saturday night. It might be the first time in modern history that the rest of the SEC is pulling for Kentucky during the regular season.