Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The sight of all 15 basketball players lining up and stretching was an uncommon one Thursday for the Florida Gators. A welcomed one, to be sure.
And while UF coach Billy Donovan has refused to use his team’s recent run of injuries and roster shuffling as an excuse -- “I’m pretty sure they’re not canceling any games because some our guys can’t play,” he said -- the notion of having his top eight players in the rotation available for the stretch run (and the possibilities it presents) is something he can be happy about.
If not cautiously optimistic, also.
“Our guys have been through the grind the last month or so, but they can’t rest or relax; they have to step up and play,” said Donovan, whose eighth-ranked Gators (22-5, 12-3) face Alabama (19-9, 11-4) in a crucial Southeastern Conference noon showdown Saturday at the O’Connell Center. “They can’t take the approach that, ‘Hey, we’re deeper and have more guys available,’ because we don’t know if those other guys are going to be where they need to be to provide significant minutes.”
Those other guys, of course, are junior forward Will Yeguete, back after missing six games following knee surgery, and freshman guard Michael Frazier, who suffered a concussion last Saturday in a home win over Arkansas.
Yeguete’s first contact practice since his Feb. 8 surgery was Thursday. Frazier’s first was Thursday too, though it was cut short due to back spasms. He returned to the court on a limited basis Friday and is expected to be available for the Crimson Tide.
Junior forward Casey Prather, who left the Tennessee game with a bloody facial laceration that required five stitches, practiced Thursday and definitely will play.
Eight men in, so to speak.
“Obviously, it’s great to have those guys back and to have a team at full strength,” senior forward Erik Murphy said. “But I don’t think it gives us a reason to expect anything out of them. I mean, Will has been out I-don’t-know-how-long.”
Come tipoff, it’ll be 25 days since Yeguete limped off the Bud Walton Arena floor at the 16:44 mark of the first half of the first meeting with Arkansas. A lot has happened since.
Florida was 7-0 in the league at the time and ranked second in the nation.
The Gators lost that game and are 4-3 since.
“I’m excited. It feels like such a long time since I played,” said Yeguete, who averaged six points on 58-percent shooting and 6.3 rebounds, second-best on the team, when he aggravated an already-sore knee, the pain from floating cartilage chips becoming too much to bear. “At the same time, I’m not going to be 100 percent. It’s a process.”
No question, but a little Yeguete -- and all the intangibles he brings with defense, rebounding, in the press and depth -- is better than none at all. In all three of UF’s losses, the team was out-rebounded (by double-digits against Missouri and Tennessee) without Yeguete to bolster the frontcourt.
And the Gators certainly could have used Frazier, making 54.9 percent of his 3-pointers in conference play, against the Volunteers. His mere presence on the floor has to be accounted for, which means better spacing for the UF offense, which equates to better ball movement.
Florida will need that against an Alabama team that sometimes struggles to score, but rarely gives up anything easy defensively.
“They guard very well and hold teams to relatively low number of points,” Donovan said of the Crimson Tide.
They're tough to read, this Alabama bunch. The Tide lost a game to rival Auburn 49-37 last month, scoring just 12 points in the second half. Last weekend, they went for 93 in a triple-overtime loss at LSU.
Bottom line, Bama has been able to overcome its shortcomings and inconsistency to have a chance at an SEC title. Just like the Gators have outlasted being shorthanded to put themselves in the same position with three regular-season games to go.
The added bodies are a bonus.
“It would be nice to win the SEC, but that’s something we can’t do without winning,” Murphy said. “We need to be focused and be on point for this next game.”
Having a few more soldiers to take into battle will be a plus. The danger, according to Donovan, is making any assumptions about the added firepower.
“I have a totally different perspective,” the coach said. “If we put all our eggs in a basket that, ‘Yeah, all our kids are cleared to play,’ I think that’s a mistake.”
Donovan definitely won't do that. He'll like the looks for a crowded and dressed-out bench, though.
GATORS GAME BOX
Alabama at No. 8 Florida
Tip-off: Saturday, noon (O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.)
Records: Florida 22-5, 12-3 (SEC); Alabama 19-9, 11-4 (SEC)
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones and Jimmy Dykes)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: This one could go a long way toward deciding the Southeastern Conference champion. The Gators lead the league standings by one game over the Crimson Tide and Kentucky, which is at Arkansas today to face a Razorbacks squad that is 16-1 at home. UF can win a share of the SEC title by winning two of its final three games. ... Florida, looking to bounce back after Tuesday night’s loss at Tennessee, is 13-0 at home this season, while Alabama is 4-6 on the road. The game is UF’s second-to-last home date, with Vanderbilt in town Wednesday for what will be the team’s senior night. ... The Tide lead the all-time series 73-60, but under Coach Billy Donovan the Gators are 17-5, including five straight wins and an 8-0 record at home. UF defeated Bama twice last season, winning 61-52 at Tuscaloosa and 66-63 in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament at New Orleans. ... Donovan is 4-0 vs. Tide coach Anthony Grant, who worked alongside Donovan for two years at Marshall (1995-96) and for 10 seasons together at UF (‘97-2006), culminating with the first of Florida’s back-to-back national titles. ... The anticipated availability of both junior forward Will Yeguete (6 ppg, 6.3 rpg before knee surgery Feb. 8) and freshman guard Michael Frazier (SEC-leading 48.9 percent from 3-point range) will bolster the team’s depth and have their 8-man rotation at full-go for the first time in eight games. UF has gone 4-3 over its previous seven. ... The Gators are led by senior guard Mike Rosario (13.1 ppg), who has topped the team in scoring six of the past seven games, followed by senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and senior forward Erik Murphy (12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Against the Volunteers, Boynton and Murphy combined to go just 4-for-17 from the floor and 1-for-9 from 3-point range. ... Two weeks ago, Murphy was one of four players in the nation making over 50 percent from 3-point range, but is just five of his last 18 (27.7 percent) over the previous three games. ... Alabama, winner of five of the last six, has three starters averaging in double figures and is yet another SEC team that goes with a four-guard rotation, ala Tennessee (and oftentimes UF). ... The Tide is not a great shooting team (their 43.1 percent rates ninth in the conference), but defensively they guard at 40.3 percent, which rates as fourth-best in the conference, and they average 10 steals per game. ... Junior guard Trevor Releford (15.6 ppg, 2.7 apg) is a top candidate for First-Team All-SEC honors. Releford not only is the league’s No. 4 scorer, but is shooting 49 percent (5th) and excels at attacking the basket, getting to free-throw line and taking advantage when there (81 percent). ... Guard Trevor Lacy (11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is another offensive threat and 7-foot, 255-pound center Moussa Guy, while not a scorer (1.7 ppg), is quite the distraction in the paint and rates fifth in the conference in blocked shots (1.6 pg).