Michael Frazier described the excitement that rippled through the Florida basketball team Thursday night when players received a text informing them that Kentucky had lost, therefore the Gators were the outright Southeastern Conference champions. “They texted us after the game, I guess, and told us that we had won the SEC, but Coach D (Billy Donovan) also told us that you know we need to chase greatness and what happened had nothing to do with us,” Frazier said Friday afternoon before the top-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0) practiced to put the finishing touches on a game plan for Saturday’s game (4 p.m., CBS) with LSU (17-10, 8-7 SEC). “We still have a game tomorrow that we need to focus on and that we’re going to try and win.”
It isn’t that winning the SEC title for the third time in the last four years and the fifth time in the last eight isn’t important to the Gators – it is – but they do understand that winning the SEC is just one more rung up a ladder that they hope stretches all the way until April 7, when the NCAA championship game is played in Dallas.
“We’re thinking about bigger things,” explained Dorian Finney-Smith, the hero of Tuesday night’s win over Vanderbilt when he broke out of a shooting slump to score 19 points to go with a game-high nine rebounds.
Saturday’s game with LSU represents one of those bigger things because in Billy-think, it’s the next game on the schedule and whatever is next always looms the largest. And, once past LSU, the Gators still have two more SEC games next week before the season shifts to one-and-done mentality of SEC and NCAA Tournament basketball.
Friday, Donovan was keeping everything in perspective.
“The league is not over,” Donovan said. “We still have three games remaining. We’re playing against a very, very talented, very good team in LSU tomorrow afternoon. I think our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played.”
There is plenty to be accomplished Saturday. The Gators will be facing an LSU team that has to play its way back into contention for the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers have struggled on the road lately and they’ve gone from an NCAA lock to a team that probably has to win two more regular season games and at least one in the SEC Tournament to get into the big dance. Because the Gators are the #1-ranked team in the nation, they always get the other team’s best shot but that will be compounded Saturday by LSU hoping for a signature win to boost its post season chances.
Additionally, the Gators have a pair of streaks on the line as well as a chance to move one game closer to finishing the season 18-0 in SEC play, something that has never been accomplished. The streaks are both school records – 20 straight wins and 30 consecutive victories at the O-Dome. Kentucky has gone 16-0 three times in SEC play (1996, 2003, 2012) but no SEC team has ever run the table with an 18-game conference schedule. Kentucky (1970 and 1986) and LSU (1981) came close at 17-1.
So Donovan is correct. Just because the Gators have already won the SEC title, there are still big games remaining in the regular season.
“Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well,” Donovan said. “The season’s not going to be over with. In a week or maybe a little bit longer the SEC Tournament will start, the post season will start, so this is something where we’re playing against some good teams and we have an opportunity to keep moving in that direction. I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team.”
The SEC championship is appreciated, Frazier said, but this is a team that wants to be great and simply winning the SEC won’t qualify as great in their minds.
“It’s nice,” Frazier said. “We worked for it, but at the same time we’re trying to chase greatness. We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have that honor but we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals. Not to look too far ahead but just go one day at a time, continue to get better. We have a game tomorrow against LSU. That’s our biggest challenge right now, our biggest focus. That’s really what we’re focusing on, but we do have other goals.”
KASEY HILL WILL PLAY
Freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who has missed the last three games with a strained groin, will be able to give the Gators minutes off the bench Saturday. He went through a full practice Thursday without any pain and has been cleared for action. Donovan said that Hill could have played Tuesday night against Vanderbilt, but the trainer didn’t want to risk a setback.
“I think our trainer felt like he could have possibly thrown him in there against Vanderbilt but it was one of those things where he just thought it was a little bit of a risk,” Donovan said. “If he did tweak it again it could put him out for another ten days or so.”
Dorian Finney-Smith was mired in a 1-23 slump from the 3-point line when he came through with a 3-6 effort against Vanderbilt including the decisive shot from the top of the key with 30.6 seconds to go.
Finney-Smith said his teammates never let him get down and made him keep working hard in practice.
“It was Jake (Kurtz), everybody just telling me to shoot and shoot after practice,” Finney-Smith said. “Everybody had confidence in me, kept telling me to shoot.”
During the shoot-around before the Vanderbilt game, Frazier used a unique confidence-building approach.
“Just after shoot-around I just made him make seven in a row from the corner,” Frazier said. “That’s something that he usually doesn’t do but I challenged him to do that, and just to kinda try and help build his confidence and show him that he can actually shoot the ball. And he was able to do it, so I think that kind of helped him get a little bit more confident.”
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
LSU (17-10, 8-7 SEC): Johnny O’Bryant (6-9, 256, JR); Shavon Coleman (6-5, 195, SR); Jarell Martin (6-9, 241, FR); Jordan Mickey (6-8, 220, FR); Anthony Hickey (5-11, 182, JR)
FLORIDA (26-2, 15-0 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, SO)