No. 1 Florida at South Carolina preview: Gators ready for road tussle with confident Gamecocks

Location: Colonial Life Arena – Columbia, SC [Capacity: 18,000]
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST

TV: ESPNU (Joe Davis, Dino Gaudio)
SiriusXM: 93/199 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
Online Video: WatchESPN.com | Mobile Video: WatchESPN app
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(1) FLORIDA GATORS SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Head Coach: Billy Donovan Head Coach: Frank Martin
Record: 27-2 (16-0 SEC) Record: 11-18 (4-12 SEC)
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Roster | Schedule Roster | Schedule

Odds: Florida -12 | O/U: OFF

HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS

» The Gators won the outright 2014 SEC regular-season title and clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the SEC Tournament last Thursday after Kentucky lost and gave UF a four-game lead in the league standings with three contests left to play. It is the program’s second-straight title, third in the last four seasons, seventh overall and fifth outright.
» Florida leads South Carolina 41-22 in the all-time series and holds a 25-11 edge in the series with Donovan has coach. The Gators are 19-13 against the Gamecocks on the road (10-6 under Donovan) with victories in five-straight meetings and 12 of the last 15.
» UF defeated USC 74-58 back on Jan. 8. The teams play each other twice this season after not doing so in 2012-13.
» Donovan and Martin go back to the late 1990s when the then-young Florida head coach recruited Udonis Haslem, who played for Martin at Miami Senior High School. Since Martin first became a college head coach in 2007, Donovan is 3-0 all-time when the friends meet on the court.
» UF enters Tuesday’s game on a program-record 21-game winning streak and at 16-0 have set a school mark for most conference wins in a single season. Its 27 wins are also the most the Gators have captured in a single season.
» With a victory, Florida would become the fourth team in SEC history to win 17 league games and just the second all-time to hold a 17-0 SEC mark. If the Gators win their final two SEC games, they could become the first team to finish 18-0 in the league.
» Florida is also on two school-record home winning streaks – 31-straight overall and 16-in-a-row against league opponents.
» The Gators at 27-2 (16-0 SEC) have set a program mark for best overall start to a season. UF has also won 26 of its last 27 games.
» Florida has won eight-straight SEC road games, also a program record.
» The Gators are 78-9 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season when holding an opponent under 71 points in a game.
» UF is 13-2 this season in single-digit decisions after going 0-6 in such contests during the 2012-13 campaign. Florida is also 1-0 in overtime games.
» The Gators are 10-2 in true road games this campaign with both losses coming against ranked opponents during the first month of the season. UF lost those contests by a combined seven points.
» This marks the latest in a regular season that Florida has been ranked No. 1 nationally. The Gators have achieved a No. 1 ranking in four separate seasons and is 17-5 playing as the top team in the country.
» South Carolina is 1-9 all-time against No. 1-ranked opponents with its only victory coming against Kentucky in 2010.
» The Gators’ senior class is the first in school history to win three SEC championships.


PROGRAM RECORDS SET, EXTENDED THIS SEASON

» Record to start a season (overall): 27-2
» Record to start a season (SEC): 16-0
» Winning streak (overall): 21 games
» Regular-season wins: 27
» SEC wins (single season): 16
» SEC road wins (consecutive): 8
» Home wins (overall, consecutive): 31
» Home wins (SEC, consecutive): 17

GEARING UP FOR A TOUGH ROAD GAME

Though South Carolina may not seem like the toughest place for Florida to play – the Gators have done quite well in Columbia as of late and even better on the road this season – there is no doubt that Donovan has his players prepared for an environment that at least partially led to the Gamecocks registering a big upset win last Thursday.

Donovan credited Martin for his coaching acumen this season, noting that USC may be a work in progress but is nevertheless a team UF cannot take lightly on Tuesday, especially after it upset then-No. 17 Kentucky at home last Thursday.

“There are some constants with their team that Frank really believes in. They really defend hard. They do a terrific job of rebounding,” he said. “Like most teams, you look at a team that you’re playing this time of the year and you go back – and watch them play against us the first time – and hopefully you can look at us the same way and see improvements and see strides. They’re doing a lot more defensively. They’re playing box-and-one, they’re playing triangle-and-two, they’re playing zone, they’re playing man, they’re playing three-quarter court, and they’re playing full-court pressing. We’re going to have to deal with a lot of changing defenses. …

“They are a team that has gotten better and obviously they’re coming off a great win Saturday against Kentucky.”

Donovan points out that South Carolina is executing better offensively and “understands where shots are coming from” on a game-to-game basis. Florida’s defense was able to shut that down earlier in the season but cannot walk into Tuesday’s game with an overconfident attitude just because of how successful the team has been this season.

“You can have all the experience in the world that you want on the road. You can have all those kind of things, but at the same time if you don’t play and play well, it’s really, really hard to win on the road,” he said.

“I don’t care who you play against or where you play, there’s a focus and intensity that you need – and if you don’t come with that intensity and focus, you’re putting yourself in a position to lose. A lot of times some of the things that you say – ‘Florida is an older team, an experienced team. They have a lot of guys that have done this before’ – all that’s good provided you play extremely hard, provided you play together and provided you execute. If you don’t do those things, whether you’re a young team or an old team, it doesn’t make a difference. You have to be able to do those things.

“We’ve had some success on the road, but like I always say that’s in the past right now. We’ll find out what kind of success we have on the road [Tuesday] going on the road to play South Carolina.”

JUST IN TIME?

Donovan told Gators fans not to expect much from freshman forward Chris Walker, who joined the team in mid-December and has only played eight games dating back to Feb. 4. And “not much” is what Florida has received from Walker thus far, mostly not due to any fault of his own.

Joining a program in the middle of the season without the chance to go through the grind of offseason practices or fully learn formations on offense and defense, Walker has slowly but surely come along. His natural athleticism has allowed him to flash at times with alley-oop dunks and blocks, but he has mostly just been another body on the court for UF.

On Saturday, Walker notched a career-high 14 minutes, registered a career-high six rebounds and made a basket for just the second time in his last six games. Donovan thought he took advantage of an opportunity to compete against an opponent that utilized a lot of general post concepts on both ends.

“Chris, the game against LSU was a good one for him. He could inject some of the things he brings to the table into the game,” Donovan said. “I thought he gave us good minutes when he was out there playing. Hopefully he’ll be able to continue to progress and get better.”

He added: “I’m hopeful going forward that he can continue to learn and we can utilize him more and get him into a bigger role than maybe he has been but a lot of it is going to be predicated on [whether] he picking things up that he needs to pick up. I can control the offensive part of him and what we’re running and what we’re doing. I can’t control what the other team is running against him and what they’re doing and whether or not he can handle that. … How quickly he can get there, I don’t know, but it would help our team if we can get him into a little bit of a bigger role where he’s providing our team with more minutes in the frontcourt.”

The Gators have less depth in the backcourt they expected entering the season but have nevertheless found a nice rotation. If Walker can contribute more and more each contest, it will help Florida be able to press more efficiently and be less concerned with foul trouble late in games.

NOTES AND QUOTES

» On keeping Florida on an edge despite the fact that it has won 26 of 27 games: “I showed them one time a picture of our whole team in a car driving. They’re all looking around outside the road there looking at this ranking and this, this and this, and right there in front of them was a wall that we’re getting ready to crash into and they didn’t see anything. So, like, are we going to worry about the things around the periphery or are we going to be focused on the road and the lane we’re in right now? … I think visual things, for me at least with young people, are always good when you’re trying to get a message across to show them or to create a point and to get them to understand the next step or staying focused, in the moment, being intense, being ready to play.”

» On the Gators’ team health: “Health-wise, everybody’s good right now. Everybody was in practice. Nothing that’s a problem right now. Hopefully after practice today there will be nothing that is a problem.”

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