GAINESVILLE — Now the real stretch begins.
The Florida men's basketball team is about to embark on a critical week, playing Vanderbilt at 9 tonight in the O'Connell Center then hosting Kentucky on Saturday night. If the Gators want to remain atop the SEC East (5-2), they have to take care of business at home.
"These games are huge," senior C Vernon Macklin said Monday. "We've got two games at home against two great teams. I think if we can go out there and play well and try to get these wins against these two teams, it will be a great opportunity for us."
In the final nine games of the regular season, Florida faces Vanderbilt and Kentucky twice and has rematches with South Carolina (an earlier loss), Tennessee (a win) and Georgia (which took the Gators to double OT before UF won).
That, coach Billy Donovan said, is one of many factors when looking at Florida's recent history in February. The Gators were 5-1 in SEC play in 2008 before entering February and going 3-7; in 2009, Florida was 5-2 in SEC play when February began, then won just four of its last nine SEC games, including three losses in the last four; last season Florida entered February with a 4-2 mark and split the final 10 games.
"You've got to look at the scheduling and the way it falls," Donovan said. "Traditionally with the way the league has been set up in terms of moving into February, they've created a lot of very challenging matchups, not only for us but for everybody. Not to say that our first five or six games were easy games, but there's no question that the teams that we're playing going forward, I think everybody would say are probably better than some of the teams we've played up to this point in time."
WATCH AND WAIT: National signing day is Wednesday, and with official visits now over, the Gators are in watch and wait mode. Florida remains in the hunt for Jermaurio Rasco, the No. 8 weakside DE in the nation out of Evangel Christian in Shreveport, La. Rasco visited Florida this past weekend and is expected to choose between Florida, Florida State and LSU. DT Timmy Jernigan, the Lake City Columbia star, visited Tennessee last weekend and told Rivals.com that FSU, LSU and Tennessee are his top three, which means the Gators might be out. Meanwhile, 6-foot-4, 340-pound DT Johnathan Jenkins (Perkinston (Miss.) Gulf Coast Community College) visited Florida over the weekend and will choose among the Gators, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma State and Miami. Florida is No. 17 on the Rivals.com board and No. 22 on Scout.com.
FREHLING GETS FIRST WINS: Former Seminole High freestyle swimmer Kaitlin Frehling picked up her first individual career wins Sunday against Indian River State College. "It was a really great experience this past weekend," she said. "I'm improving every day, and it feels amazing. I'm so happy here. I'm excited about and looking forward to SECs."
Entering the meet, Frehling's only victory of the season came as part of a UF relay squad. Against IRSC, she won the women's 50 free in a collegiate-best 23.49. Later in the women's 100 fly, the freshman won in 56.36.
"Kaitlin has gotten better all year long," said Florida coach Gregg Troy, the 2012 USA Olympic men's coach. "She came in with great skill from an absolutely tremendous club program down in St. Petersburg. We feel like she's going to be key for us at the SEC Swimming Championships here in Gainesville (Feb. 16-19). It was great to see her get her hand on the wall first multiple times this past weekend."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.