Road trips in the Southeastern Conference are always an adventure, just ask Joakim Noah. He’s the most visible, outspoken and unique player in the league and at 6-11 with that signature pony tail, he’s the most inviting target the SEC has seen since another Florida Gator brought out the worst in opposing fans because of his high profile girlfriend.
Matt Walsh was a lightning rod for hecklers, largely because his girlfriend Lauren Anderson was a Playboy Playmate. Noah’s girlfriend may not have shown it all in Playboy, but that hasn’t stopped fans at Florida’s road stops from trying to get under his skin with chants about his girlfiend and his mom, a former Miss Sweden.
“They wouldn’t say that to my face,” said Noah Monday afternoon. “It’s so easy to talk trash like that when you’re part of a crowd.”
Noah expects to get it with both barrels tonight when the Gators (21-2, 8-0 SEC) start the second half of the Southeastern Conference season against the Georgia Bulldogs (13-8, 5-4 SEC) in Athens. Just the fact that it’s Florida-Georgia means the fans will be packed to the rafters in Stegeman Coliseum, but with the Gators entering the game unbeaten in the SEC and ranked number one in the nation, the atmosphere should be electric.
The Gators have already endured some tough road environments this year. They lost to Kansas in Las Vegas in a game that had the feel of a Kansas home game since the crowd at Orleans Arena was about 90 percent KU. Florida lost in Tallahassee to Florida State in a highly-charged atmosphere where the fans stormed the court after the game.
In SEC road trips to Mississippi State and Auburn, the Gators were greeted by record crowds that did everything they could to give their teams an emotional edge. They tried getting under Florida’s skin, but if anything, it only got the Gators a little bit more focused.
“We feel like everywhere we go, it’s a circus,” Noah said. “I love it. I think we love it.”
Knowing that Auburn was treating its encounter with the Gators as a coming out party for the young but talented Tigers, Coach Billy Donovan showed up in the locker room wearing a policeman’s uniform before the game. Donovan wore the badge, the boots, handcuffs and night stick to emphasize Florida’s role as the SEC police that come to visiting arenas to shut down out of control parties.
“We come with that mentality, like we’re the cops just ruining the party, messing everything up,” Noah said. “We just like the mentality of being the bad cops, taking the kegs away, taking everything away and just messing up the party … messing up the good time. Everybody goes home with a sad face. We just go home like nothing happened.” The Gators expect a party all night atmosphere in Athens and if they can play the role of party pooper, they will move one step closer to clinching the Southeastern Conference championship. The Gators have a two-game lead on second place Kentucky (6-2 SEC) and a three-game cushion on Vanderbilt in the SEC East. A win and Georgia is at five losses, setting up Saturday’s showdown in Lexington with Kentucky as the game that may give the Gators all the separation they need from the rest of the SEC pack.
If the Gators pull off a two-game road sweep this week, they will have a 10-0 SEC mark with three home games remaining in their final six SEC games. Considering how the Gators are playing at home (16-game winning streak at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center), a three-game cushion with six games to go is probably insurmountable for the rest of the league.
But the Kentucky game will have to wait. For now, the Gators’ focus will be dealing with a Georgia team that is playing its best basketball at home where the Bulldogs have already sprung the upset on Kentucky.
“I’m sure it will be a great environment in there,” said Donovan. “They’ve had a terrific year. The week before last we had two on the road, two at home and we have two on the road this week. Five of our last eight are on the road so we have to focus and put all our energy towards this game on Wednesday, get prepared and ready as we can to play against a team that is very, very good.”
Florida defeated Georgia 67-51at the O-Dome in the first SEC game of the season, a game in which Corey Brewer (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Noah (13 points, 13 rebounds) pulled off double-doubles as they controlled the inside. On the perimeter, Lee Humphrey hit 4-6 from the three-point stripe as he chipped in with 16 points.
In that first game, Georgia shot 7-16 from the three-point stripe, the best any team has shot against the Gators from long distance in SEC play. In Florida’s last four games, the Gators have locked down the perimeter. Mississippi State, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Tennessee have combined for 19-57 from behind the arc, a mere 25 percent.
For Florida to come away with a road win at Georgia, Donovan knows the Gators will have to do a better job defending the three-point line than they did at the O-Dome. He wants a defensive effort like he’s seen the last four games.
“Lay-ups and threes are things you really want to take away,” Donovan said. “You can get away with a team trying some jump shots, but don’t let them be threes.”
GAME NOTES: The Gators have won 14 games in a row, tied for the third best record in school history … Brewer is just 15 points away from the 1000-point club. Taurean Green is not far behind at 961 points, while Noah has 956, Humphrey 914 and Horford 885 … All five Florida starters are averaging in double figures with Green leading at 13.6 and Noah averaging 13.1. Al Horford leads in rebounding at 8.9 while Noah averages 8.3 … Georgia has four starters averaging double figures led by Takais Brown (14.4) and Mike Mercer (13.6).