The 2006-07 Gator Basketball schedule certainly has two of the best non-conference games in recent history, but it also includes far too many walkovers for my taste. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot that can be done about it.
The November 25th game against Kansas in Las Vegas might be the best non-conference game ever. The Jayhawks will probably be ranked third in the nation behind Florida and North Carolina and have a roster loaded with talent. The game also has a neat little side story as it will bring together Florida’s Walter Hodge and Alexander “Sasha” Kaun of Kansas. The two teamed up to win a pair of state titles at Florida Air Academy in Melbourne.
The Jayhawks are coming off a 25-and-8 season that was both thrilling and disappointing. They shared the Big-12 regular season title and won the conference tournament. But they also suffered the indignity of a first round exit form the NCAA tournament, falling to nearby Bradley.
They have all five starters and two of the top three guys off the bench returning this season (Sound familiar?). The best player is Brandon Rush (13.5/5.9) who is a legit All-American candidate. Mario Chalmers (11.5) is the only other player who averaged in double figures on a team with tremendous scoring balance. Kansas was a strong team on the boards and has plenty of size to bang with the Gators.
Kansas is also bound to have a home court advantage in this one. The school asked for 4,000 tickets to the game in an arena that seats just 7,700. The only got 3,000, but 2,000 have already been sold. Look for at least half the crowd to be chanting “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk”.
The second gem on the slate is Ohio State, which visits the O’Connell Center December 23rd. The Buckeyes are a definite top ten team and the game was to showcase the latest phenom in freshman center Greg Oden. Unfortunately the thrill of watching Oden match up with Joakim Noah and Al Horford is unlikely to occur as the seven-foot Oden is recovering from a broken hand. He may return to action by then, but he certainly will not be at his best.
The Buckeyes were 26-and-6 last year and are the defending Big Ten champs. They were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Georgetown 70-52. The Gators took out the Hoyas in round three.
Ohio State lost their top two scorers and top three rebounders. They have a strong freshman class to go along with Oden, but it might be a little much to expect them to measure up with the Gators early in the season.
Remaining Slate Uninspiring
After those two games, Florida’s schedule has three other significant non-conference games with Providence, UAB and Florida State. All three games should be competitive but all three should also be wins.
After that, it’s a conga line of teams coming to the O’Connell Center for a pay check and a beating. For those of you who aren’t big fans of Jerry Falwell you’ll be happy to learn one of those beatings will be inflicted on Liberty University on January 2nd.
The pre-conference schedule will give Florida time to figure out this year’s playing rotation as much as possible. It should also give plenty of opportunity for newcomers Marreese Speights, Dan Werner, Jonathan Mitchell and Brandon Powell to display their abilities.
Conference Will be Strong
The SEC promises to be better than last year when a young league earned more and more respect as the year went on and eventually produced two Final Four teams. Most of the players who had NBA potential elected to stay in school and as a result their teams will be better. The SEC race is Florida’s to lose, but Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt are all capable teams that should be NCAA Tournament bound. Perennial NIT super power South Carolina beat the Gators twice last year and almost did it a third time, but they’ll be without Renaldo Balkman who gave the Gators fits.
The Western race should be a battle between LSU and Alabama and both should again be dancing at the end of the year.
All in all it’s a schedule that will prepare the Gators for the SEC and a conference that will get them ready to defend their NCAA Title come March. Billy Donovan was half right when he said that the Gators are defending nothing as this season gets underway. That’s true, but only until the NCAA bids come out on March 4th.
For those of you who wanted to see more challenging opponents on the schedule, particularly in the O’Dome keep two things in mind. First, more and more schools are aiming for Neutral site games such as Florida has this year with Kansas and UAB. Second, most teams’ interest in playing the Gators this year disappeared when Noah, Horford and Brewer passed up on the NBA draft.