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Saturday November 17, 2012Tough Middle Tennessee State Squad Has Gators' Full Attention

Gainesville, Fla.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

TAMPA, Fla. -- In ESPN vernacular, the Florida Gators are on “upset alert.”

UF coach Billy Donovan, in fact, used two words to describe the circumstances awaiting his basketball team Sunday when it faces Middle Tennessee State at the Tampa Bay Times Forum like so:

“Ambush game.”

The 10th-ranked Gators are coming off Wednesday night’s 74-56 thumping of 22nd-ranked Wisconsin when they shot a rip-roaring 62 percent from the floor and dismantled one of the best teams in the Big Ten Conference. They’re probably feeling pretty good about themselves heading to Tampa.

Waiting for UF will be one of those mid-major, directional schools that may not resonate with mainstream college basketball fans.

It resonates with Florida’s coaches, however, and their challenge the last three days -- especially coming off such a solid performance against a Badgers team that went to the Sweet 16 last season -- was to sell the Blue Raiders as a big-time threat.

Show the UF players tape of MTSU’s wins last year over UCLA, Ole Miss and Tennessee (the Volunteers waxed the Gators twice, by the way) should have done the trick. The Blue Raiders return 11 of their top 13 players from a squad that went 27-7 and earned a trip to the NIT.

All those points and more were emphasized by assistant coach John Pelphrey, charged with the advance scout of the Blue Raiders. So was the fact that it was barely two weeks ago that UF had its five starters on the court in the second half of an exhibition game against Division II Nebraska-Kearney and led by just six points.

“It’s important to understand we’re just two games into the season, so it’s not like anyone should be thinking we’ve got anything figured out,” Pelphrey said. “I do think we came into the Wisconsin game on and edge and with a tremendous amount of respect
If we have anything but that for Middle Tennessee, we’ll get beat.”

There is, after all, the previous mentioned precedent for the Blue Raiders taking down big-name programs.

But Donovan thinks Middle Tennessee belongs in conversations with mid-majors that aren’t really mid-majors, ala Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Murray State.

“This is going to be an incredible challenge for us, and in a lot of ways a much, much more difficult challenge than playing Wisconsin,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot we have to get prepared for.”

Middle Tennessee is comfortable playing just about any style. The Blue Raiders have 10 players that average between 12.5 and 5.0 points per game, so there’s no one to key on because they’re so willing share the ball, averaging 19 assist per game.

“There’s nothing we’ll do that will surprise them or overwhelm them,” Pelphrey said. “They’ve seen it all before, done it all before and will be very confident coming in against us.”

The Blue Raiders’ opener was a 97-53 blowout of Alabama State, which UF beat by a comparable 49-point cushion. They had to come from behind in the second half to beat Savannah State 58-55 on Tuesday.

If that Savannah score makes you shrug, UF seniors Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy remember losing to South Alabama as freshmen and Jacksonville as sophomores, the latter defeat coming the same season the Gators won the regular season Southeastern Conference title.

“I promise you we won’t take these guys lightly,” Boynton said.

“We know how good they are,” Murphy said. “We’re happy with our win against Wisconsin, but we also turned the ball over 20 times. There’s a lot of areas we can get better.”

Sharpening mental focus would be a great place to start.

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GATORS GAMEBOX
No. 10 Florida vs. Middle Tennessee State
Tip-off: Wednesday, 4 p.m. (Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.)
Records: Florida 2-0; Middle Tennessee State 2-0
TV: Sun Sports (w/Larry Vettel and Mark Wise)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Steve Woodard) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Middle Tennessee notes
Need to know: Probably the most underrated opponent on the Florida schedule. Middle Tennessee is a Sun Belt Conference giant-killer with plenty of high-major notches on its belt under Coach Kermit Davis, the league’s coach of the year in 2012. ... The Gators will play their 11th game in the Tampa Bay Forum (formerly known as the St. Pete Times Forum and, before that, the Ice Palace). UF is 7-3 in the building, 3-1 record in the NCAA Tournament there. UF defeated Wright State 78-65 at the Forum last Nov. 21. ... Junior PG Scottie Wilbekin returns from a three-game suspension for violating team rules. Wilbekin, though, will not start the game, but he’ll definitely help the depth of a squad that played five starters at least 29 minutes in Wednesday night’s 74-56 defeat of 22nd-ranked Wisconsin. ... Senior 6-10 F Erik Murphy (19.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is coming off a perfect 10-for-10 shooting night against the Badgers. He’ll start alongside 6-9 C Patric Young (10 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and 6-7 F Will Yeguete (6 ppg, 7.5 rpg) up front for the Gators, with senior Kenny Boynton (16 ppg, 6 rpg) still manning the point, and flanked by senior G Mike Rosario (14.5 ppg, 3 rpg). ... If Wilbekin is not the first sub off the bench, freshman G Michael Frazier will be. Frazier starred at Tampa Plant High, where he scored 1,902 points in three years -- averaging 29.7 as a junior -- before transferring his senior season to Montverde (Fla.) Academy. ... MTSU will run a similar up-tempo, pressing, pick-and-roll style at the Gators -- and oftentimes with the same kind of three-guard lineup Donovan likes. Senior Gs James Gallman (8.5 ppg, 5-for-7 from 3-pt this season) and Bruce Massey (6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) make them go, but the Blue Raiders will run waves of subs in the games. They’re leading scorers, G Marcos Knight (12.5 ppg, 6 rpg) and Jason Jones (10.5 ppg) come off the bench. ... MTSU’s assistant coach Monte Towe was a UF assistant under Norm Sloan when the Gators went to the first three NCAA tournaments in program history (1987-89) and captured their first regular season Southeastern Conference title (’89).

 

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