Billy Donovan shouldn’t have to remind his 2nd-ranked Florida Gators (23-2, 12-0 SEC) what’s at stake tonight when Auburn (12-11, 4-8 SEC) pays a visit to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (7 p.m., Sun Sports/Fox Sports Network). The Gators have a pair of streaks on the line – a 17-game winning streak that ties the school record and a 29-game winning streak at the O-Dome – but more important, they have a chance to move one step closer to clinching their third Southeastern Conference championship since 2011 and the sixth since Donovan became head coach.
The Gators hold a three-game lead over Kentucky (20-6, 10-3 SEC) in the loss column in the SEC standings and with three wins they clinch a share of the title (the SEC counts the winner of the regular season as the conference champ, not the tournament champion). With a #4 national RPI and an unbeaten conference record, the Gators are also very much in line for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and could end up being the #1 overall seed, so they can’t afford a loss to a team (Auburn) with a #183 RPI and the #108 toughest schedule in the country.
Donovan shouldn’t have to remind the Gators that just a month ago, Auburn had them on the ropes late in the second half in a game the Gators pulled out, 68-61, on Auburn’s home court. Auburn lost three consecutive games after the loss to Florida, but since then has been one of the surprise teams in the league, winning four of the last six.
“You look at they’ve won four of their last six games and are playing really good basketball,” Donovan said Monday. “They’ve played everybody tough at home, it’s not just us. They had a lead against Kentucky there in the second half. They beat Alabama at home. They just beat Mississippi State at home and scored 92 points. This is a team that has played very well and is giving itself a chance, whether it’s home or away. They’ve played very good basketball.”
What has turned the season around has been the play of the high scoring guard tandem of senior Chris Denson and sophomore KT Harrell, a Virginia transfer. Denson is averaging 20.9 points per game while Harrell is averaging 19.2. Denson has scored 160 points in the last six games (26.6 per game) while Harrell has scored 116 (19.3) over the same stretch.
When the Gators faced Auburn a month ago, Denson went off for 21 while Harrell had 18.
Donovan knows there are lessons to be learned from that first game that can help the Gators play better tonight.
“I think we can take things from that game in terms of things we need to do better and adjustments or changes,” Donovan said. “They’re going to basically do the same thing. I don’t know if there’s going to be any correlation from one game to the next. I think Auburn is a very good team. A lot of times because look at results and look at the result of a record and try to identify what a team is.
“Tony (Barbee) has done a really good job of putting Denson and Harrell in really difficult situations to defend those guys with the way they can score, put it down on the floor and shoot threes. It becomes very challenging and difficult to deal with those guys. When you do give those guys too much attention, it opens up offensive rebounding for Dixon-Tatum, Payne and their front court players.
The Gators come into the game allowing just 58 points per game and having held Kentucky to nearly 20 points under its normal scoring average last Saturday night in Lexington. In conference games, only Arkansas (82) and Alabama (69) have exceeded their scoring average against the Gators, who have held eight of their 12 SEC opponents to 59 or fewer points. Auburn comes into the game averaging 73.9.
GAME NOTES: Backup freshman point guard Kasey Hill is listed as doubtful for the game with a groin injury suffered against Kentucky. If Hill can’t go, it will be backup point guard by committee with DeVon Walker, Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier backing up starter Scottie Wilbekin … In his first three seasons at Florida, Casey Prather scored 334 points. He has scored 361 this season and leads the Gators at 15.7 per game … Wilbekin has a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio in SEC games, but in the last two games he has eight assists and zero turnovers … In his last seven games, Auburn’s Chris Denson is averaging better than 25 points per game. Florida was recruiting Denson but when Wilbekin elected to forego his senior year in high school to enroll at Florida, Denson signed with Auburn.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
AUBURN (12-11, 4-8 SEC): Allen Payne (6-6, 225, SR); Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7-0, 226, SR); KT Harrell (6-4, 216, JR); Chris Denson (6-2, 181, SR); Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5-10, 163, FR)
FLORIDA (23-2, 12-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SR)