Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The 2012-13 Florida basketball schedule, completed by the unveiling of the SEC schedule Friday, could very well be the most difficult in the history of the program, based on opponents’ pedigree and success last season.
The Gators, who return three starters and their top seven players from a squad that went 26-11 and fell one game shy of the Final Four, will play 10 games against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament. Nine of those games will be against teams that were seeded fifth or higher.
Two, of course, will be against reigning national champion Kentucky (at least) in the Southeastern Conference’s revamped 18-game format. The revised league schedule eliminated the two-division alignment in favor of one that gives teams four home-and-homes that will rotate annually, eight single-game opponents (four at home, four on the road) and one permanent home-and-home foe, which in Florida’s case will be Kentucky.
That the SEC powers that be picked the Gators to face the Wildcats twice a year (no doubt in primo TV time) is a compliment, folks.
While the first day of practice is more than two months away, it’s not too early for a semi-detailed breakdown the UF slate.
All 31 games, in fact.
Nov. 1: Nebraska-Kearney (exhibition)
The buzz: First time (for some, maybe one of the few times) to check out the freshman class. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess who among the foursome will work their way into the rotation, but the candidates are guards Michael Frazier, Dillon Graham and Braxton Ogbueze (pronounced “oh-BOISE,” as in Idaho), plus swingman DeVon Walker.
Nov. 9: vs Georgetown (at Naval Station Mayport, Jacksonville, Fla.)
The buzz: The Navy/Marine Corps Classic should be a take-your-breath-away kind of evening on the aircraft carrier USS Bataan docked on the St. Johns River. The Hoyas return three of their five leading scorers from a team that went 24-9 and was seeded third in the NCAA Midwest Region, only to lose to North Carolina State in second-round play. Freshman guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera figures to be an impact player. But this one will be more about the pageantry, especially if the Commander in Chief comes to inspect the troops.
Nov. 11: Alabama State
The buzz: The Hornets (12-19, 9-9) were a middling team in the Southwest Athletic Conference last season, as well as early season fodder for the likes of Cincinnati, Clemson and Detroit.
Nov. 14: Wisconsin
The buzz: The first half of a home-and-home contract. The Badgers finished fourth in the Big Ten last season, though at 12-6 just one game behind a three-way tie for the league’s regular-season title. UW (26-10) was a four-seed in the East, losing 64-63 to No. 1-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16, missing a game-winning 3 in the closing seconds. Badgers return a nice nucleus from their roster, but All-Conference guard Jordan Taylor is gone. Freshman Sam Dekker, who averaged 32.5 points and 13.2 rebounds per game at Sheboygan (Wis.) Lutheran played for UF Coach Billy Donovan’s gold medal-winner USA squad in the U18 FIBA Americas Championship in Brazil.
Nov. 18: vs Middle Tennessee (at Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.)
The buzz: If this has the vanilla appeal of UF’s date against Wright State in Tampa last year, better look again. The Blue Raiders, out of the Sun Belt Conference, went 27-7 last season, beating UCLA and Ole Miss on the way to reaching the NIT, where they upset Tennessee in Knoxville. Think that was a memorable moment for the program?
Nov. 20: Savannah State
The buzz: Pretty decent team out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Good enough at 21-12 to get an NIT bid. The Tigers, though, made the rounds getting road pay days. Paid for them, too, losing at Georgetown (by 29), Indiana (29), Georgia Tech (20), Wisconsin (33) and Arkansas (17).
Nov. 23: UCF
The buzz: Remember the last time the Gators faced the Knights? Donovan would like to forget it. UCF stunned UF 57-54 on Dec. 1, 2010 at Orlando, though the NCAA vacated that win -- and 20 others from the 2010-11 season -- when it placed the Knights on probation last week for major rules violations. UCF, which went 22-11 last season (with an upset of Connecticut) and reached the NIT, is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament this season.
Nov. 29: Marquette
The buzz: For the SEC/Big East Challenge, ESPN shunned the obvious choice -- a rematch of the West Region final against Louisville (and another Rick Pitino reunion) -- for a rematch of the Gators’ Sweet 16 round game against the Golden Eagles. It may have been UF’s finest overall game of the season, given the foe and forum, in knocking out one of the most athletic teams in the league -- and a great defensive one -- with a 68-58 upset of the No. 3 seed, but forward Jae Crowder and guard Darius Johnson-Odom are gone.
Dec. 5: at Florida State
The buzz: If the Marquette game wasn’t UF’s most complete of last season, the 82-64 shellacking of a Seminoles squad that won the Atlantic Conference Tournament (and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAAs) may have been. The Gators have defeated the Seminoles three straight in the series, but FSU returns All-ACC guard Michael Snaer and has a nationally ranked six-man signing class, led by shooting guard Aaron Thomas.
Dec. 15: at Arizona
The buzz: The return game of a home-and-home series, the first of which was won by the Gators 78-72 in overtime last year at the O’Connell Center. Even in winning 23 games and going 12-6 in Pac-12, it was a down season for the Wildcats and their conference. That record was only good enough to send Arizona to the NIT, where the Wildcats lost to Bucknell. The next version of Sean Miller’s team will be different, thanks to a the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class (featuring 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and two other top 25 players), along with the return of forward Solomon Hill and two other starters. It’ll be the Gators first trip to McKale Center since Billy Donovan’s first season when the Gators played in the Fiesta Bowl Challenge (but didn’t play Arizona).
Dec 19: Southeastern Louisiana
The buzz: First the SWAC, then the MEAC. Now comes the Southland Conference. The Lions were 12-17 last season, though they did fight Arkansas in a seven-point road loss the same week they lost by 19 at South Carolina.
Dec. 22: vs Kansas State (at Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.)
The buzz: Before crying foul about a “neutral site” game against K-State to be played 120 miles from its Manhattan campus, remember the Gators and Wildcats played in 2010 in the Orange Bowl Classic at a “neutral site” in Sunrise, Fla. UF won that one. The Wildcats lost Coach Frank Martin to South Carolina, after Martin led them to the NCAA four of the last five years, with a second-round setback versus Syracuse in ’12. Martin was replaced by Bruce Weber, who was fired in March after nine seasons at Illinois.
Dec. 29: vs Air Force (at BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise, Fla.)
The buzz: Speaking of the Orange Bowl Classic, the Gators are the event’s main attraction for the seventh year in a row and the 12th time in 13 years. Organizers thought they had Tulane wrapped up as UF’s opponent, but it’ll be the Falcons, instead. They went 13-16 last year in the Mountain West.
Jan. 6: at Yale
The buzz: Huh? Florida playing a true road game at an Ivy League school? Well, this one is a reward for senior forward Erik Murphy, who grew up in nearby South Kingstown, R.I., about 90 minutes from New Haven, Conn. When possible, Donovan likes to schedule these appreciation-type games for out-of-state players. Note: Just be glad it’s not Harvard, which beat FSU last season. Also hope the Gators don’t fall behind 9-0 like they did at home against Yale last year. On the road, you just never know. Note 2: Greg Mangano, the 6-10 center who poured in 26 points and hit 4-for-6 from 3-point range, signed with a pro team in Turkey last month.
Jan. 9: Georgia
The buzz: The Gators will welcome the Bulldogs for their SEC opener. Georgia was down again last season, going 15-17 overall and just 5-11 in the league, but in case anyone forgot -- Donovan surely hasn’t -- the Dawgs’ dismantled the Gators 76-62 in Athens; probably UGA’s best game of the year and UF’s worst. The Bulldogs will welcome back All-Freshman Team guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Gators beat the Bulldogs 70-48 at the O’Connell Center last season. UGA hasn’t won in Gainesville since 2002.
Jan. 12: at LSU
The buzz: First SEC road game. The Tigers were tough to figure at times last season, losing to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama, but beating Georgia Tech and Marquette. LSU finished 18-15 (losing at Oregon in the NIT) and 7-9 in the SEC and gave UF a tough game in Gainesville, though 7-foot, 260-pound center Justin Hamilton is now with the Miami Heat.
Jan. 17: at Texas A&M
The buzz: UF’s only meeting with the Aggies, but the Gators got a preview of the SEC’s 13th team at the aforementioned Orange Bowl Classic last Dec. 17. Florida jumped to a 25-point halftime lead on the way to an 84-64 win. Playing at College Station, obviously, will be different, especially with the Aggies boasting the return of guard Elston Turner, plus a top-30 recruiting class led by guard J-Mychal Reese.
Jan. 19: Missouri
The buzz: The high-flying, high-scoring Tigers who averaged 80 points per game on better than 50-percent shooting en route to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament -- and, albeit, a first-round loss to Norfolk State -- are mostly gone, having lost their top three scorers. The backcourt of Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey will be back, though. The game will mark the first meeting with Mizzou, too.
Jan. 23: at Georgia
The buzz: The return game for one of UF’s four home-and-home foes. The Gators have dropped three of their last four visits to Athens.
Jan. 26: at Mississippi State
The buzz: Off to Starkville, were the Gators have lost three of their last four, for the front end of two games against the Bulldogs. MSU lost its two top scorers in forward Arnett Moultrie, taken in the first round of the NBA draft by the Heat (then traded to Philadelphia), and guard Dee Bost. MSU also will have a new coach in Rick Ray, a former assistant at Clemson. Ray replaced Rick Stansbury, who retired in March after 14 seasons and having won more games than any coach in program history.
Jan. 30: South Carolina
The buzz: Martin is a good friend of Donovan’s. The former coach at Miami Senior High once sent a couple players by the name of Udonis Haslem and Brent Wright to the Gators, which worked out pretty well. Martin will have his hands full in Columbia, where he’ll take over for Darrin Horn and a program that went 10-21, winning just two games in SEC play. Oh, and one of the Gamecocks’ best players, 6-9 defensive specialist Damontre Harris, transferred to Florida. And USC’s top returning scorer, point guard Bruce Ellington, is playing receiver for Steve Spurrier this fall.
Feb. 2: Ole Miss
The buzz: Coach Andy Kennedy led the Rebels to a nice finish, 20 wins and the fifth NIT bid in his six seasons, then declined an offer to return to his alma matter at UAB. He’ll be back in Oxford, but leading scorer Terrance Henry is gone. Rebels return three of top five scorers and figure to scrappy, as always.
Feb. 5: at Arkansas
The buzz: The Gators will play the Razorbacks twice, which means a return trip to the site of one of the most deadly shooting performances in team history. All the Gators did at Fayetteville last year was hand the Hogs, who were 17-0 at home at the time, their worst loss ever in that building, a 98-68 bludgeoning where UF shot 13-for-23 from the 3-point line. Arkansas lost six of seven down the stretch to finish 18-14, but a roster virtually intact -- and recruited by UF assistant coach John Pelphrey, who coached the Hogs from 2007-11 -- and led by guard BJ Young.
Feb. 9: Mississippi State
The buzz: The return trip for the Bulldogs, who last won in Gainesville in 2008.
Feb. 12: Kentucky
The buzz: The game will mark just the sixth time in school history the Gators will host a reigning national champion (UK ’52, ’79, ’97, ’99; Arkansas ’95). The next version of the Wildcats will look nothing like last year’s. That group, which swept UF in three games, the last a down-to-the-wire contest in the SEC Tournament semifinals, had six players drafted, four in the first round, including center Anthony Davis and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at 1-2. But like every other John Calipari team in Lexington, the next will be headlined by the No. 1 freshman class in the nation, with 6-10 center Nerlens Noel and 6-8 forward Alex Poythress the marquee names.
Feb. 16: at Auburn
The buzz: The Tigers were just 5-11 in SEC play last season, but threw a first-half scare into the Gators at the O-Dome before UF pulled away for a 63-47 win. That game was notable for the season-ending injury to forward Will Yeguete, the invaluable and versatile defender who suffered a broken foot in the game. Auburn returns leading scorer Frankie Sullivan and will look for immediate help from freshmen Jordan Price and Shaquille Johnson.
Feb. 19: at Missouri
The buzz: Mizzou Arena has some history, home to 24 NCAA Tournament teams. The Tigers went 18-1 at home last season, losing only to K-State during that 30-5 campaign.
Feb. 23: Arkansas
The buzz: What variation of “Pig-Sooey” will the Rowdy Reptiles come up with?
Feb. 26: at Tennessee
The buzz: The physical and hard-fighting Volunteers proved a horrific matchup for the Gators last season, sweeping the series with relative ease: 67-56 at Knoxville and 75-70 at Gainesville. Coach Cuonzo Martin went 10-6 in his first season with the Vols, but had to settle for the NIT. He’ll return the bulk of his squad, including beastly power forward Jarnell Stokes, tough-guy guard Trae Golden and sharp-shooting 3-point specialist Skylar McBee.
March 2: Alabama
The buzz: Crimson Tide (and friend-of-the-program coach Anthony Grant) earned an at-large NCAA berth last season with 21 wins, but lost in first-round play to Creighton. Bama said goodbye to forward JaMychal Green, but guards Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey are back. They’ll be joined by 6-7 freshman forward Devonta Pollard, a top-25 prospect from Ponterville, Miss.
March 6: Vanderbilt
The buzz: The Gators will say goodbye to their senior class of Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Murphy. The Commodores, champions of the SEC Tournament after handing Kentucky its lone league loss in 19 games, lost their top five scorers (64 points per game worth), including NBA draft picks John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli. Coach Kevin Stallings and his staff must totally rebuild a 25-11 team (the Commodores lost to Wisconsin in second-round NCAA play). Vandy’s top returning scorer is guard Kendren Johnson, who averaged 3.1 points per game and its best incoming recruit is forward Sheldon Jeter, considered a top-150 prospect.
March 9: at Kentucky
The buzz: The Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Senior Night ... though these days it’s the freshmen that get fans really excited in Lexington. Tremendous environment and as challenging a way to exit the regular season as there is in college basketball.
March 13-17: Southeastern Conference Tournament (at Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.)
The buzz: The 2013 postseason tournament is back in the Music City for the first since 2010. Great venue for a great event. The Gators last reached the SEC final in 2011, losing to Kentucky, and last won it in 2007 on their way to that second straight national championship.