Location: Bridgestone Arena – Nashville, Tennessee [Capacity: 19,395]
Time: 1:00 p.m. EST
SiriusXM: 93/190 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
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|(8) FLORIDA GATORS||(9) ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE|
|Head Coach: Billy Donovan||Head Coach: Anthony Grant|
|Record: 15-16 (8-10 SEC)||Record: 18-13 (8-10 SEC)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
Odds: Florida -4
IT’S NOW OR NEVER FOR THE GATORS
Despite the team’s dismal campaign, Donovan’s worst since his second season at Florida (1997-98) … despite the Gators averaging their fewest points per game (64.0) since 1950-51 … despite UF being so inefficient from the foul line that the term “free throw” has become ironic (.632 is its worst mark since 1951-52) … despite all of that, Florida enters the SEC Tournament on Monday on equal footing with the rest of the league.
It will likely take at least one win – if not two – to give the Gators a chance at earning an NIT berth. It will assuredly require winning the tournament outright for Florida to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth-straight year. And if you ask Donovan, this particular UF squad is as ready as it will ever be for this test.
“Hopefully, they’re excited to play. You’re getting a chance to go somewhere and play at a neutral site. It’s an opportunity to play again. I think our guys, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve gotten better as a team,” he said on Tuesday.
“Better” is a relative term when it comes to these Gators. Injuries and suspensions have limited how much Florida has been able to develop as a complete unit this season, but for team with known talent deficiencies (according to Donovan), the Gators’ schedule – one of the toughest in the nation – did not do it any favors either.
“I’m not saying this as an excuses at all to our team, it’s just reality: this team probably, in my opinion, this year was way over-scheduled in terms of where we’re at and where these guys are at,” said Donovan. “Now, with that being said, it’s also the best thing that possibly happened because it gives us the best opportunity to get in the NCAA Tournament, and it gives the best opportunity to find out who we really are as a team. But I think when it’s all said and done, our RPI at the end of the day is probably going to be somewhere in the top 10. And when you look at our conference schedule, I think we’ve had one of the most difficult conference schedules, too.”
Donovan believes those trials were “an incredible foundation for learning” and helped facilitate not only an improved commitment level but also better overall on-court discipline. Still, at the end of the regular season, “it’s not at the level that it even remotely needs to be at, it’s just not,” Donovan noted.
Florida’s poor “mental makeup and frame of mind going into the season” was “about as bad as I’ve ever been around,” Donovan continued, noting that he is not referencing the players’ attitudes but rather their disposition.
After losing six of seven games to start February (all by single digits, back-to-back contests by a just one point), the Gators ended the 2014-15 regular season with wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M as well as a dog fight for 30 of 40 minutes before getting blown out by Kentucky.
Florida was rewarded for its effort with four days of preparation for the tournament and an opening-round opponent it is not only familiar with but actually beat this season – on a last-second driving dunk by redshirt junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith.
To that end, Donovan believes the Gators are entering the event with a stronger mindset.
“It’s about trying continually to play better and better and to improve – for guys to improve individually, to improve collectively. You know, then obviously the goal is to try to win,” he said. “We’re going in there to play Alabama and see if we can move and advance and play on Friday. So in order for us to do that, we’ll have to continue to grow and get better as a group.”
Even if Florida does defy the odds by taking down the Tide on Thursday, pulling off a miraculous upset of the undefeated Wildcats on Friday and running the table to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, Donovan is not confident it would prove the Gators have truly turned a corner.
“I look at it as while they are here — yes, this is a season — after this year’s over with, how do they actually learn and grow? I don’t believe that just because you go through an experience that the next year makes you better. I don’t believe that happens,” he said. “I think next year we can be right back in the same situation we are now. That would not surprise me one bit. “
HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS
» The Gators are the defending SEC Tournament champions and hold a 41-45 all-time in the event, 26-14 under Donovan. UF has won four total tournament crowns, all in the previous 10 tournaments (2005-07, 2014).
» Alabama leads Florida 73-65 in the all-time series between the programs, but the Gators hold a massive 22-5 advantage under Donovan with victories in 10-straight meetings and 12 of the last 13 showdowns.
» Donovan is 9-0 against Grant and 15-2 all-time against former assistants.
» The Gators were 86-10 over the last three seasons when holding opponents under 71 points in a game; Florida is 14-12 this season when doing so.
» UF is scoring 64.0 points per game, the third-lowest average in program history (since the statistic was tracked) and worst since 1950-51 (62.7).
» Florida is shooting .436 from the field, its worst mark since 1995-96 (.426) and the second-lowest in program history.
» The Gators are hitting at a .632 clip from the free throw line, matching their worst average since 1951-52 (.617).
» UF is shooting the three at a rate (.326) that is its fourth-lowest in the 29 years the shot has been part of the game, its worst such mark since 2009-10 (.313).
» The Gators have double-digit losses for the first time since 2011-12. In the last 16 seasons, Donovan has only lost 10+ games six times (including 2014-15).
» Florida has put forward 13 different starting lineups in 30 regular-season games. Overall, 10 players have started at least one game for UF this season.
» The Gators learned to win close games last season, going 15-2 in contests decided by single digits; Florida is 7-11 in such affairs this season, 2-6 in games that have come down to two points or fewer.
» UF is unlikely to reach 20+ victories this season, ending a streak of 16 consecutive seasons with that many wins. Florida’s 16-straight such campaigns marks the longest streak in the SEC and fifth-longest nationally. Donovan is one of only eight coaches that have ever won 20+ games in 14+ consecutive seasons.
» With the NCAA Tournament seemingly out of the picture barring a UF win in the SEC Tournament, the Gators will at least need to win two games in the SEC Tournament to have a shot at an NIT berth.
» Florida posted a record of .500 or worse during the spring semester for the first time since 1997-98.
2015 SEC TOURNAMENT BRACKET
INJURIES AND ABSENCES
» Out (3): Junior F DeVon Walker (ACL), sophomore center John Egbunu (transfer – season), freshman G Brandone Francis (academics – season)
NOTES AND QUOTES
» On the matchup against the Tide: “Playing against Alabama and seeing them late January, I think a lot’s changed for both teams. … Both teams are probably a little bit different today than maybe we were playing in January. … The rest of the year, [you] are playing in order to continue to play, to move on and advance.”
» On being able to dominate Alabama in the paint during the season: “We got very, very fortunate because, if you look at the game, Jimmie Taylor was in foul trouble right away. He picked up two fouls and never got in the flow of the game. He has kind of been the anchor to their defense; he’s a really good shot blocker. … It probably took away some of their length at the basket.”