GAINESVILLE — It's something that Florida coach Billy Donovan often talks to his players about, but in the wake of the Marcus Smart incident — and as the Gators prepare this week to play in two of the most hostile environments in the SEC — the conversation bears repeating.
Fans can be nasty and sometimes completely out of line, but you can't let that affect you.
The No. 3 Gators play at Tennessee tonight then face No. 14 Kentucky in a prime-time nationally televised game at Rupp Arena on Saturday. No doubt, the fans will be relentless at both venues.
"I tell our guys all the time: When you're going on the road, there's always going to be situations and things that can distract you from doing your job," Donovan said Monday. "There's enough to deal with in between the lines with who you're playing against, never mind trying to deal with what's going on outside the lines.
"For us, it's the same things, same message all the time. We've got to do our jobs, be connected and focused on doing our jobs."
Smart, the Oklahoma State sophomore guard, was suspended three games by the Big 12 after he shoved a fan who made an inappropriate comment to him as he was helped from the floor after he fell into the stands. Donovan coached Smart as part of two USA Basketball national teams.
"He is a great kid," Donovan said. "I never had one bit of a problem with him. I really was appreciative that he came back the second year and played. I remember the first year we had him, there were a couple of games where we were up by 30, 40 points at halftime. Because we had to play five games in a row, I said, 'Marcus, I'm not playing you in the second half.' 'No problem, coach, whatever I can do to help.'
"He's always been that kind of kid. What people saw from him in that situation against Texas Tech to me is totally uncharacteristic. I never saw anything like that, ever, coaching him."
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said he believes the anonymity fans enjoy via the Internet and sports radio has started to filter into the arena — which can be dangerous.
"I get the feeling fans feel like they can say kind of whatever they want to, that that comes with the price of admission, and sometimes there might be a ramification for something that you say if it's out of line," Stallings said.
"I just think that the fans need to be responsible like the coaches and the athletes are supposed to be responsible. We need to remember that good sportsmanship is supposed to be part of this collegiate athletic experience. I get the passion and all that. I do, and I appreciate it very much. But there's a difference between cheering hard for your team and yelling obscenities at an opposing player."
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he's constantly reminding his players to keep their cool in opposing arenas.
"There are hostile environments everywhere we go and I tell the guys, 'You can't deal with all that,' " Calipari said. "We get it the same way and hopefully we've taught them."
With four seniors on the roster — all starters — Donovan expects the Gators to be mentally prepared this week. Florida has lost eight of its past 10 at Tennessee and its past six at Rupp. Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said the message for the team, especially the younger players, is to keep their minds on the court.
"It doesn't matter what they say," said Wilbekin, who considers Tennessee fans among the best in the SEC. "They're just fans and they're not going to impact (the game). We've just got to go out there and play."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]