Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- While the Southeastern Conference basks in the glow of a seventh national football championship in as many seasons, the league tips off the college basketball season this week viewed in a far different light.
A hazy, shadowy light some may suggest.
Yes, Kentucky is the reigning national champion and Florida reached an NCAA regional final, making the SEC one of three leagues to have two teams in the Elite Eight, but that was 2011-12.
In 2012-13, the SEC has taken some punches to the gut through the first two months of the season. Alabama lost to Mercer. Auburn to Winthrop. Mississippi to Indiana State. Mississippi State to Loyola-Illinois and Alabama A&M. South Carolina to Elon. Texas A&M to Southern. Vanderbilt to Marist and Middle Tennessee State.
Only two SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25 -- Kentucky is not one of them, by the way -- and the league is a combined 3-11 against ranked opponents. Flushing it out even more, the SEC is 3-6 against the Atlantic Coast Conference, 4-13 against the Big East, 2-5 against the Big 12, 2-4 against the Big Ten and 4-5 against the Pac-12.
Collectively, the SEC’s RPI is eighth. That's behind the Mountain West and Atlantic 10.
Even Kentucky, with yet another top-ranked freshman class, has already dropped four games, albeit to Duke (No. 1), Louisville (3), Notre Dame (17) and Baylor.
The focus on this, both regional and national, has SEC coaches in full-court press defense mode.
“If we're going to start judging teams on who we are in November or December ... let's just have the [NCAA] tournament January 1st,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said Monday. “But if the tournament's going to be in March and April, let the season play out and let coaches do their job.”
UF coach Billy Donovan seconded that notion.
“A lot of times, based on November and December, your league gets immediately labeled,” Donovan said. “Clearly, up to this point and time, our league has had some difficult, challenging losses. We all have. But I don't think you take our league and just put it in a box and say, ‘OK, the league is not as good,’ because I think teams are going to get better.”
For the 11th-ranked Gators (10-2), whose losses have come on the road against still-unbeaten Arizona and twice-beaten Kansas State, that process enters the next phase with their SEC opener against Georgia (6-7) Wednesday night at the O’Connell Center.
Without question, losses now become far more costly, as games become more meaningful.
“It doesn’t matter what teams did before,” UF junior forward Will Yeguete said. “When they get into conference play, that’s all that matters.”
The Gators started last year’s SEC season by going to Tennessee and getting physically worn down by the Volunteers. That UT team, by the way, lost December games to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston, yet grew up to go 10-6 in the SEC play, sweeping its two games with Florida in decisive fashion.
It’s worth noting, also, the Gators defeated the Bulldogs in their first home conference a year ago, but six weeks later were whipped on the road by a Georgia team that went 15-17 and at 5-11 tied for the second-worst record in the conference.
That second game is one the UF coaches will be reminding their players about. It started the Gators on a three-game regular season-ending losing streak.
“They got us last time,” said senior guard Kenny Boynton, who Sunday emerged from the worst shooting slump of his career by nailing eight 3-pointers and equaling his career high with 28 points in a road win at Yale. “But it’s a new year. We have to go out and play a full 40 minutes.”
UF, along with Kentucky and Missouri, are considered the favorites to contend for the SEC’s regular season title. But some team (maybe teams) few are talking about -- maybe Arkansas, Ole Miss or Tennessee -- figures to step up and play beyond expectations. That's what makes every game so key.
It’s part of a process Donovan talks to his team about and encourages them to embrace; even when that process may not be so pleasant.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do with these guys is get them to a place where I’ve taken them to the limit physically so they start to develop a mentality of pushing through difficulties, pushing through challenges,” said Donovan, who staged some of his most intense practices of the young season during the eight off days over the holidays that preceded the Yale game. “As the week went on, we got better and better at it. We’re going to need that kind of resiliency this year.”
Everyone in the SEC will be out to capture it.
And with it, some more respect.
Georgia at No. 11 Florida
Tip-off: Wednesday, 7 p.m. (O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.)
Records: Florida 10-2, 0-0 (SEC); Georgia 6-7, 0-0 (SEC)
TV: CSS (w/Dave Baker and Bill Koss)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: The game marks the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. The Gators went 10-6 in league play last season, good enough for fourth overall, while the Bulldogs went 5-11, tied with Auburn for next-to-last. ... UF is 13-2 at home against Georgia under Coach Billy Donovan, including a 70-48 win last Jan. 10. ... The Gators are 7-0 when opening SEC play at home with Donovan at the helm and 11-5 in all SEC openers over his 16 seasons. ... UF ranks fourth in the nation (and first in the SEC) in scoring defense (52.7 ppg) and 11th in field-goal percentage defense (36.8, which ranks 11th nationally), and faces a Georgia team scoring just 60.6 points per game and hitting only 41.4 percent of its shot. ... Offensively, the Gators are second in the league in field-goal percentage (48.3), 3-pointers made (7.8 pg) and free-throw percentage (71.7). ... Senior G Kenny Boynton (13.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is back to leading the Gators in scoring after erupting for a career high-tying 28 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the arc in Sunday’s 78-58 win at Yale. Boynton also became the school’s career 3-point maker with 290, breaking the mark of former G Lee Humphrey (288 from 2004-07). ... With 1,755 career points, Boynton need 23 points to move past former teammate Erving Walker (1,777) into fourth place on UF's all-time scoring list and 28 to pass Udonis Haslem (1,781) as No. 3. ... Junior PG Scottie Wilbekin (8.2 ppg, 4.7 apg) had a career-high 10 assists at Yale, the most by a UF player since Chandler Parsons dished 10 in a 2011 NCAA Tournament win over UC Santa Barbara. ... Senior F Erik Murphy (12.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) is doubtful for the game due to a cracked rib suffered Friday in practice. He will be replaced in the frontcourt by junior Will Yeguete (6.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), but look for increased minutes from reserve Casey Prather, who had one of the best all-around games of his career (9 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists in career-best 26 minutes) at Yale. ... Georgia boasts one of the SEC’s best all-around players in former McDonald’s All-America G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), a 6-5 sophomore who twice has scored at least 25 points this season and excels at getting to the free throw line. ... No other UGA starter averages more than 5.7 points. ... The Bulldogs have won four straight, including defeats of Southern Cal and underrated Mercer, but their losses to date have been a mixed bag: Indiana, UCLA, Georgia Tech and South Florida, but also Iona and Youngstown State.