No. 11 Florida’s game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday is certainly a big one.
For starters, the Gators can capture the SEC regular season title outright with a victory. Secondly, for Florida’s three seniors — Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy — it’s the last time they will take the court inside the O’Connell Center.
Winning a regular season conference title has been somewhat overlooked in recent years. With so much focus on conference tournaments and seeding for the NCAA Tourney, regular season champions don’t receive the same acknowledgement as they would in another sports.
When asked if winning the regular season title means anything in this day and age, Billy Donovan answered in the affirmative.
“I think we’re playing for a lot here on Wednesday,” Donovan said. “I think winning a championship outright I think is always special and they certainly already have a piece of it right now.
I think playing better is important right now because after this week is over with we are in one-and-done situations for the rest of the year … So the game is important because the next one is for an outright championship and it’s also part of, we need to be playing better than what we played for the first 28 minutes against Alabama.”
Florida looked sluggish, sloppy and borderline uninterested at times against Alabama last Saturday. When the reality hit that they could lose their first game of the season at home, the Gators turned it up in the final 10 minutes, outscoring the Crimson Tide 23-5 down the stretch.
“I think Alabama’s focus and energy was better than ours to start the game and even probably for the first eight minutes of the second half,” Donovan said. “I don’t know if it was because we weren’t quite sure how to handle all that with new players coming back into the game, the emotion of the game, distracted, whatever it was I am not 100 percent sure.
“Now all of a sudden we have everybody back and we have to get back to playing together as a group, which we have not done in a long, long time fully healthy … But I have to do something to get these guys back into roles and situations that are entirely different from what they were the last month. That’s just what we have been dealing with.”
Donovan said that having everyone back in the fold is undoubtedly a boost to the team. Added depth will certainly lighten the load on Florida’s guards according to Donovan, but the Gators’ frontcourt — notably, Patric Young — will benefit immensely in not only games, but practice as well.
Said Donovan: “I think the one thing that is going to help our practice is having Damontre Harris back. That helps Patric Young get prepared going against bigger people.
Little Commotion over Commodores
Vanderbilt (13-15, 7-9) has spent most of the season as a conference afterthought. In turn, there hasn’t been much talk surrounding the Commodores, who the Gators will face for the first and only time this season on Wednesday.
“I think anytime you play a team that takes over 40 percent of their shots from behind the three-point line it’s dangerous,” Donovan said. “The only team I could probably liken them to and we had a difficult time against was Air Force.
“Where the floor is going to be spaced and they are really going to utilize the three-point line … They are going to guard real well. I think this is a great challenge for us on both ends of the floor to be able to get good shots, to work together and then to try to eliminate three-point shots.”
Donovan was asked if the Florida offense has been possibly suffering from fatigue as of late due to the team’s defensive pace. Donovan responded by saying his team needs to be more “aware” on offense.
“We’re not a team that just flips the ball and puts a guy in an iso situation and let the guy go one-on-one, “ Donovan said. “We can’t play like that … There are no lottery picks on our team.
“We’ve been a top-10 team all year long and you look at a lot of these other top 10 teams, there’s lottery picks all over the place. With that being said, what’s made our team really good has been defending collectively and running offense collectively. When we do those things, we are as good as anyone out there … We’ve got to get it done together.”
Donovan has certainly had his fair share of ups and downs with Florida’s three senior players.
Although Boynton could potentially leave as the school’s all-time leading scorer, and has never given Donovan any issues off the court, Boynton has been criticized for shot selection at times.
Both Murphy and Rosario have experienced at least one off the court issue, but both players have been playing at an extremely high level this year, providing Florida with leadership and points.
“Those guys have meant a lot to our program,” Donovan said. “Kenny coming out of high school probably could have just about anywhere in the country and chose to stay in-state and play here.
“Erik, just the relationship with his dad and playing against him in college and him being at Boston College and me being at Providence and seeing Erik as a young kid as a sophomore was the first time I saw him.
“I think for Mike Rosario who transfers in here and he really doesn’t get a chance to play a lot last year … seeing him kind of having the year he’s having. I’m happy for those three guys.”
As they play their swan song in the O-Dome on Wednesday, Florida’s seniors will be attempting to do something never done at Florida — win two outright regular season SEC championships.
“I think it would be a great accomplishment for guys like Boynton, Rosario, Murphy, Patric Young, Yeguete, and Prather,” Donovan said. “They all have been the only group of guys that have been part of two outright SEC championships during their careers. It never happened before. I think anytime there is a first, I think those guys deserve a lot of credit for that.”
Gators Drop in Polls
Despite defeating Alabama last week, the Gators fell a few slots in the both major polls on Monday after also losing to Tennessee last Tuesday.
The Gators dropped from No. 8 to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, while falling to No. 9 from the No. 6 slot in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Florida’s RPI ranking also feel this week, as the Gators checked in at No. 6.
While having a high ranking is always nice, fans and media like to obsess over different numbers during this time of year — NCAA Tournament seeds.
“I think that last year I think we were seventh and I’m not sure I agreed we should have been seventh,” Donovan said. “At the end of the day you have basically 30 games you play, the selection committee is going to seed you how they are going to seed you. You have to go out and play and you have to get prepared to play.
“Does it make a difference? I don’t know. You could look at the numbers and say the better seed you have the more likelihood there is to advance, but we were a seven seed last year with an opportunity to go to the Final Four. We have to go out and play, regardless of what the number is next to our name.”