Can the Gators play to potential?

The already large target on the chest of the 2nd-ranked Florida Gators (24-2, 13-0 SEC) grew significantly Wednesday night when previously unbeaten and #1 Syracuse was knocked off its lofty perch by Atlantic Coast Conference bottom feeder Boston College, setting the stage for Florida to ascend to #1 when the next polls come out provided the Gators can beat Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 SEC) on the road Saturday afternoon (12 noon, CBS). As if the Rebels lacked incentive to play their best game of the season, Syracuse did its part to turn the Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford into a zoo.

That Ole Miss will give the Gators their best shot is a given. That the Gators will give Ole Miss their best shot is the question Billy Donovan was asking Wednesday night after the Gators escaped with a 71-66 win over Auburn at the O-Dome and again Friday afternoon before they departed for Oxford.

“I think people always talk about, ‘Are you going to get everybody’s best shot?’ My thing has always been, we need to give our best shot,” Donovan said. “We need to play to the very, very best of our ability.”

This is an Ole Miss team that won’t lack for confidence even though the Rebels have lost five of their last seven games including the last three in a row. Ole Miss shocked the Gators last season in the championship game of the SEC Tournament and Marshall Henderson, the tournament MVP, is on hand once again. He’s a volume shooter who isn’t afraid to take any shot and when he gets hot, he can rain threes on an opponent.

Against Auburn, the Gators got a good dose of 3-ball rain when Tahj Shamsid-Deen hit five long balls as part of an overall 10-19 effort by the Tigers who were sniffing upset until the final 30 seconds when the Gators came through at the foul line to seal their 18th straight win. There is a huge difference between Auburn and Ole Miss. Auburn is a team that occasionally goes on a 3-point shooting binge. Ole Miss is a team that launches more 3-pointers than anyone in the Southeastern Conference and when hot, can burn any team in the league.

“This is a different team from the standpoint that Auburn was only making about five threes a game while this team is making about eight a game and obviously has the ability to make much more,” Donovan noted.

Donovan has often called the 3-point shot college basketball’s great equalizer and for all but the closing minutes of the game Wednesday night, it was. But defending the 3-pointer was only one of Florida’s problems.

The bigger problem, as Donovan sees it, is maxing out potential. While the Gators haven’t lost since December 2 when Shabazz Napier hit a buzzer beater to give Connecticut a 65-64 win, they haven’t really played that many games when they played up to their potential at both ends of the floor. They’ve had great offensive games like the one they needed to knock off Arkansas in overtime at Bud Walton Arena and defensive stands like the one when they snuffed out Tennessee’s offense and held the Vols to 41 points but they really haven’t played a complete game.

With just five regular season games remaining and an SEC championship within their grasp, Donovan is emphasizing to his team that they have to bring it every single possession of every game.

“I’m not taking anything away from Auburn because they played a great game,” Donovan said. “They put themselves in complete position to win the game, and as I said after the game, outplayed us. But they’ve done that all year long. They’ve just come up a little bit short and our guys have got to understand that when you’re playing against whoever it may be, you’ve got to be able to go out there and perform as close as you possibly can to your ability and your potential, because your opponent is going to do that. And we’re going to be able to need to do that.”

Florida is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but the Gators do have incentives such as winning the SEC championship outright (SEC champion is determined in the regular season not the tournament), running the SEC table (Gators are 13-0 with five games to go in league play) and wrapping up a #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Ole Miss will be playing for its tournament life Saturday. The Rebels need to knock off the Gators to help their sagging RPI – down to 71; Florida is #3 – and hope that springing the upset will set them off on the kind of hot streak that will allow them to play their way into the NCAA Tournament. A loss Saturday and the Rebels might have to win the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA. Otherwise it’s the NIT for the sixth time in the last seven years.

This is the part of the season that separates contenders from pretenders. Ole Miss has been playing like a pretender lately. The Rebels played so well in December and January, but they’ve hit a wall recently and they are fading fast. Florida has been playing like a contender and Donovan is keeping a close watch on his team to make certain the grind of the season doesn’t cause them to flame out because of physical and emotional exhaustion.

“I don’t feel like we’re this physically exhausted team,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’re this emotionally exhausted team. I just think that there’s a long year and there’s a lot of games and, especially in the SEC schedule where there’s no off-week anymore, it’s nine straight weeks, you’re playing twice a week, sometimes three depending on your schedule.”

When the Gators practice, Donovan can tell whether he needs to pull back a little or push the button a bit harder. Practice he can control. What concerns him most is what happens after the Gators leave the practice facility.

That plays into the mental and physical exhaustion as much or more than anything else.

“What are your sleep habits like?” he asked. “What are your eating habits like? All those things become a factor in terms of getting yourself emotionally ready to play and not being emotionally run down. I think that’s what happens a lot of times is the demands on these guys as it relates to school and academics and things they have to do, come here to practice, weightlifting, individual workouts, all those things.

“But what even gets you more worn out is when you don’t get the proper rest. You don’t eat correctly. You don’t really take care of yourself. That’s what really speeds things up. So that’s something we’ve talked a great deal about: Are we winning those battles once we leave here? And understanding that there is a direct correlation behind how well you take care of yourself in terms of how well you perform.”

GAME NOTES: If the Gators win Saturday, their magic number shrinks to one – any combination of one Florida win or one Kentucky loss and the Gators clinch no worse than a tie for the SEC title … In his last three games, Scottie Wilbekin has made a strong case for SEC Player of the Year. Wilbekin has scored 59 points, hitting 26-29 from the foul line, and has 12 assists with only one turnover … Patric Young scored all 17 of his points against Auburn in the second half, his best scoring output in one half in his Florida career … Casey Prather has hit 14 of his last 17 shots from the field and is hitting 62.8% from the field this season … With nine wins, Donovan (439-168 at Florida; 474-186 overall) can tie Dale Brown (LSU) for second place on the all-time SEC wins list for head coaches.


FLORIDA (24-2, 13-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 211, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)

OLE MISS (16-10, 7-6 SEC): Dwight Coleby (6-9, 236, FR); Aaron Jones (6-9, 220, JR); LaDarius White (6-6, 211, JR); Marshall Hederson (6-2, 177, SR); Jarvis Summers (6-3, 186, JR)

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.