One of the first things we talked about as a staff here was what I called a "Florida fixation." I thought it was important that every coach know that from the athletic director's chair, every game is just as important as another game. I knew there was an underlying thread here that there was a sort of a mandate to beat Florida, and I thought it was extremely unhealthy. I wanted to dispel that day one.
Because I couldn't understand why it was more important to beat Florida than it was to beat South Carolina, Tennessee, and anybody else in the East.
This is a big week for Red and Black hoops. Before traveling to the Bluegrass State to face those selfish mothers and fathers in Lexington this weekend, Mark Fox’s Georgia Bulldogs will host the Florida Gators on Tuesday with first place in the division standings on the line. The Orange and Blue are ranked 24th by the Associated Press and 19th in the RPI.
The central question, of course, is which set of Sunshine State Saurians will show up for tomorrow night’s SEC East showdown in Stegeman Coliseum. Will it be the Florida team that recently looked bad in a loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Gator club that even more recently looked worse in a win over the Auburn Tigers (no, seriously; it was bad), or the Orange and Blue outfit that still more recently looked very good in a win over the Arkansas Razorbacks? Although the latest SEC Hoops Power Poll has Florida tied for the top spot with a plurality of first-place votes, some see the Gators as "a bit of a paper tiger."
If the "paper tiger" characterization is accurate, though, Billy Donovan’s team has done a very good job of concealing that fact on the road. Leaving aside the Orange and Blue’s December 18 win in Sunrise, Fla., over the Kansas St. Wildcats (who might not be a good basketball team), the Gators have gone 9-3 in Gainesville while posting a 5-1 record on their opponents’ home courts.
Through 19 games, Florida ranks eighth in the league in scoring offense, two spots and 1.2 points per game behind Georgia, but the Sunshine State Saurians have scored 75 or more points in four of six games in January. The Gators boast the conference’s second-best, and the division’s leading, scoring defense. Georgia and Florida are two of just three teams in the SEC who allow the opposition fewer than 33.5 rebounds per outing, and the Bulldogs and the Gators are the top two teams in the league in assists per game. The Orange and Blue’s leading scorer, Erving Walker, averages 13.7 points per game, which is good enough to make him the 16th-best point producer in the conference, but the Red and Black have three players (Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie, and Gerald Robinson) in the top 15.
I understand, appreciate, and respect Greg McGarity’s effort to relieve Bulldog Nation of its "Florida fixation," but there’s no sense in pretending that a big game isn’t a big game, and this one is huge. Division standings, RPI rankings, poll positions, and bragging rights all are at stake for Coach Fox and his team, who have beaten the Gators in this venue before.
This game matters. We have to treat it like it matters, including creating an atmosphere that says so. Tomorrow night’s game, which is set for a 7:00 tip-off, will be televised on ESPN and broadcast on 97.1 FM in the Atlanta radio market. The change on your FM dial is to accommodate the state of the union address on WSB at 9:00. With all due respect to the president, and with no partisan intent behind the sentiment, I have to say that Georgia basketball ought to matter more than politics, which says something about how far Coach Fox has brought this program. My suggestion is that you watch the game, then listen to this, instead.