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Friday January 17, 2014Gators Respectfully Hit SEC Road

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

AUBURN, Ala. -- So here’s how it went the last time the Florida Gators came to Auburn Arena last Feb. 16, a dozen games into the Southeastern Conference schedule.

They jumped to a 10-point lead barely five minutes into the game, closed the first half with 10 straight points, led by 25 at intermission and rained a season-high 15 3-point field goals during an 83-52 clobbering of the struggling Tigers that marked UF’s fifth win by at least 30 points in SEC play.

Florida was ranked seventh in the country at the time, with just one conference loss, while Auburn was struggling just to scratch out wins in the league.

And here, it would appear, we are again.

Or are we?

“They’re a different team than last year,” senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Very different.”

Of the 11 Auburn players that took the floor in last year’s wipeout, only four are back to face the No. 7 Gators (14-2, 3-0), who Saturday will put their seven-game winning streak on the line against a team of Tigers (8-6, 0-3) searching for its first league victory.

Let the record show that one of those players, guard Chris Denson, leads the SEC in scoring at 19.4 points per game. Let it also show that one of Auburn’s seven newcomers, guard and Virginia transfer KT Harrell, is the league’s No. 2 scorer at 19.0 a game.

The Tigers have Florida’s attention.

At least the Gators say so.

“Auburn is a good team,” senior center Patric Young said of an opponent who represents the first of three conference road foes over the next four games. “We have to go in there with a humble mindset knowing we have a fight on our hands."

Young and Wilbekin make up half of UF’s four-man senior class, along with forward Will Yeguete and swingman Casey Prather, who is expected to play some after missing the last two games with a bruised bone in his knee. There’s not much those guys haven’t seen since entering the program in 2010. Case in point: Last year, the Gators smashed Missouri by 31 in Gainesville, then a month later blew a 13-point lead in the final 11 minutes against the same Tigers team on the road, losing by three.

With that kind of perspective, it’s the job of the seniors to view this game in its rightful prism; and their job to sell the task at hand -- an altogether new one than a year ago -- to the rest of the team.

To simplify, Auburn will remember last year's game. Florida needs to forget it.

“I’m sure the guys [from last year] are going to remind the others how they were blown out. And like any competitor, they’re not going to want to get blown out again,” Wilbekin said. “Our focus is on winning an SEC championship and that means respecting every opponent along the way. It doesn’t matter who you play. You can’t come out flat.”

No. 7 Florida at Auburn 

When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala. 
Records: Florida 14-2 (3-0); Auburn 8-6 (0-3)
TV: SEC TV (w/Joe Davis and Joe Dean)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; Auburn notes


History: Auburn leads the all-time series 87-73, but the Gators hold an overwhelming edge (18-4) since the arrival of Billy Donovan in 1996-97, including a run of 15 wins in the last 16 outings (the lone defeat being in the 2009 SEC Tournament at Tampa). UF is 24-55 all-time at Auburn, but 7-2 in the Donovan years, with the most recent last year’s 83-52 blowout win on the road. In that one, the Gators built a 25-point halftime lead and ran away with the game behind 22 points from Mike Rosario and an offense that hit 15 shots from 3-point range (six by Michael Frazier II).

Pre-game storyline: For the Gators, it’s all about maintaining their spot atop the Southeastern Conference standings, where they’re locked in an early tie with Texas A&M. UF also figures to have senior forward and leading scorer Casey Prather back in on the floor after missing two games with a bruise bone in his knee. Auburn, meanwhile, is just looking to get a in a “W” column in conference play.

The players: Prather’s return, even if it’s for limited minutes, provides the Gators with a lift in the rotation. The team won both games minus its top scorer (17.0 ppg) and SEC field-goal percentage leader (62.4), along the way making up for his points throughout the lineup. ... Senior center Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) was rebounding at a 5.8 per-game clip through the team’s first nine games, but his numbers during UF’s seven-game winning streak show 11.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 59.6 percent from the floor. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (12.4 ppg, 4.0 apg) has turned the ball over just twice the last five games.

The opponent: The Tigers had a four-game winning streak heading into the SEC season, but losses at Ole Miss and Tennessee are sandwiched around a home defeat against Missouri. ... Auburn is 8-2 at home this season, with wins over Boston College and Clemson (which beat Duke last week), but also lost a 111-92 shootout with Northwestern State, which was UF’s first-round NCAA Tournament victim last March. ... The Tigers are a middle-of-the-pack offensive team (74.5 ppg, ranks 7th in the league), but the backcourt tandem of Chris Denson (19.4 ppg) and Virginia transfer KT Harrell (19.0 ppg) rank 1-2 in the SEC in scoring. In fact, they’re the first Auburn duo in 20 years (since Wesley Person and Aaron Swinson in ’93-94) to average that many points this deep into a season. ... Denson is a driver (49.5 percent from the floor), plus he’s left-handed and changes speeds, making him very tough to guard. Harrell will drive when open, but he’s more apt to beat you deep (41 percent from 3, which ranks 5th in SEC). ...  Auburn is 12th in the league in field-goal defense (.422 percent) and last in defending the 3-point line (.386).

Key numbers:

* 2 - Ranked opponents Auburn has faced this season. In addition to the loss last week at Missouri (then No. 21), the Tigers also lost at the road at then-No. 17 Iowa State 99-70 on Dec. 2. 

* 4 - Games when Frazier has made at least five 3-point shots, which is tied for seventh-most in a season under Donovan. He did it just twice last year, including his 6-for-7 dart-throwing at Auburn.

* 11 -- Years since Auburn last made the NCAA Tournament (2003), when the Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Syracuse by one point. Theirs is the longest NCAA drought among conference teams.

* 25.5 - Auburn’s winning percentage in SEC play under Coach Tony Barbee, now in his fourth season. Barbee is 12-35 in the league and 43-58 (.425) overall.

* 2013 - The last year the Gators opened SEC play with four straight wins, which they’ll shoot for Saturday. UF opened league play 7-0 last season.

Watch for it: Defensively, Florida will put targets on Denson and Harrell, which means a heightened sense of awareness off the ball will be pivotal. When their shots go up, they’ll likely come against or in the neighborhood of UF double-teams, which means off-ball Gators have to bump and box out underneath to prevent second-chance opportunities. Florida has not been great in that department lately. Far from it, actually.


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