After playing 9 of their last 12 games on the road, the Florida Gators return home tonight to face South Carolina in the O’Connell Center. This kicks off a four game stretch where the Gators play three at home. The Gators (16-2) are coming off a big win at Mississippi State where they dominated from start to finish winning 82-47 to go 6-0 in the SEC with their 8th consecutive victory. South Carolina is coming off a 75-54 home victory over Arkansas just their second win in 6 games.
The eight game win streak, where the Gators average margin of victory has been 24.6 points per game, has propelled them to # 4 this week in both the AP and USA Today coaches polls. With the win streak, the large margins of victory, and the huge leap in the polls the worry is the players might get a little complacent. Patric Young doesn’t think head coach Billy Donovan will let that happen.
“I know coach Donovan’s going to humble us,” Young said. “He’s going to find something to make sure we don’t get too lifted up on the attention that we’re getting now. We want to be great and be recognized as a good team, but we want to make it all the way, we want to win it all then we’ll finally be satisfied with what we got.”
It’s not that the national recognition is necessarily a bad thing for the Gators, Young just see it as the reward for the hard work they’ve put in to get to this point, but thinks the players understand they’re not done and there is still a long way to go to get where they ultimately want to be. This means focusing on the game ahead.
“It’s nice to be recognized for the hard work we’ve been putting in,” according to Young. “It lets us know we’re doing the right thing so far that we need to keep improving. No championships have been won in January or in February so hopefully we can keep this thing going and have a one seed going into the tournament. But that’s down the road and later on but we’re going to worry about this game coming up this Wednesday.”
The game ahead is South Carolina, a team that has lost the last three in the series and 23 of the last 29. At 12-7 and 2-4 in the SEC it appears they might be a little overwhelmed playing on the road against the #4 team in the nation. But do not let the record fool you, this team is better than the record might suggest. They’ve played well enough to have an opportunity to win each game at the end. Before beating a pretty good Arkansas team they led # 22 Missouri by 13 in the second half of that game before the Tigers rallied. While they are not world beaters, by any means, they do have the ability to hang with Florida if they don’t come out prepared to play.
“Every game they’ve had, whether it’s been on the road at Missouri or Mississippi State, or at home against Arkansas, they put themselves in a position to win every game. I think that’s a credit to Frank (Martin) and to his staff and the guys in their program.”
Under new head coach Frank Martin, who came to Columbia from Kansas State after last season, the Gamecocks are already establishing that they are improved from last season when they finished 10-21 and 2-14 in the SEC. His tough hard-nosed approach to defense is paying dividends for the Gamecocks as “The Stare” becomes a fixture in the SEC. A passionate sideline coach, Martin got the nickname for the angry looks he gives on the sidelines. Billy Donovan is well acquainted with Martin from his days as the head coach at Miami Senior high school where he coached former Gators Udonis Haslem and Brent Wright.
“I have a lot of respect for Frank,” Donovan said. “Frank and I have known each other for a long, long time and really in the early days here he was at Miami High and we recruited his program quite a bit. He was always very supportive of his players coming here and playing here at Florida, (Udonis) Haslem and Brent Wright. I have always appreciated that he felt that way about our program to actually endorse and be positive about one of his players coming here.”
Expect South Carolina to defend well basket to basket, rebound, and take their shots from the perimeter with senior guard Lashay Page, who averages 11.7 points per game (ppg), and junior Brian Richardson who is shooting 40% (29-71) from behind the arc. Their balance scoring attack also features junior guard Brenton Williams, averaging 11.6 ppg, and junior point guard Bruce Ellington who averages 10.3 ppg. The Gamecocks are currently second in the conference in rebounding averaging 37.2 rebounds per game (rpg) one per game more than Florida. Coach Donovan certainly isn’t looking past the Gamecocks.
“I think every game gets your attention.” Donovan said. “You realize as competitive as this league is, it doesn’t make a difference. Frank (Martin) has done a great job with his team and getting (Bruce) Ellington back, he probably wasn’t with them because he was with football, but he is playing very well. They are rebounding the ball very well. They’re getting three-point shooting from (Brian) Richardson and (Brenton) Williams. They’ve added some new pieces to the team from a year ago.”
The Gators counter with a balanced scoring attack as well featuring guard Kenny Boynton who leads the team with 13.6 ppg, and power forward Erik Murphy who is second on the team averaging 12.8 ppg. Mike Rosario and Patric Young also average in double figures at 11.8 and 11.2 ppg respectively while point guard Scottie Wilbekin has increased his scoring average in the last couple weeks to just under 10 points per game. Wilbekin has been the catalyst of late for the Gator offense taking care of the ball, driving the lane, and dishing to open shooters in rhythm. He averages 5.1 assists per game and has helped Florida to lead the league in assists per game at 16.8 apg.
Defensively, the Gators continue to rank among the nation’s best giving up only 51.2 ppg and even better in conference giving up only 48.2 ppg in SEC play. Expect that to continue for the Gators tonight. The offense can be streaky at times, but the Gators defense has been a constant all season in spite of which lineup they put on the floor. According to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, the Gators are holding opponents to an average of 17.1 points below their season average and has held every opponent below their average to date.
The Gators are still ailing with Prather definitely still out with the high ankle sprain, Murphy still dealing with a cracked rib, and Yeguete still playing through tendinitis in his knee. In spite of the injuries and lineup changes throughout the season, the Gators have yet to miss a beat. Don’t expect that to change in this one. The Gamecocks may give them some challenges but they are still not much of a threat to pull this one out without an epic failure on the part of the Gators, especially playing in the O’Dome. The Gators opened as 23 point favorites to push their win streak to seven in the conference and nine overall.
Tip off for tonight’s game from the O”Connell Center is 8 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on the SEC Network.