GAINESVILLE — It's highly unlikely that when the season began in November, anyone would have predicted that Florida and Alabama would be playing for the SEC men's basketball regular-season title.
But four months later, they are at that point. The No. 14 Gators (22-6, 11-3) host Alabama (19-9, 11-3) tonight, with the winner clinching at least a share of the overall conference title.
"There's a lot of excitement, especially being able to play for an SEC championship," senior F Alex Tyus said. "A lot of thoughts are going to be going through my mind. But pretty much, when the ball goes up, it's going to be all reaction and remembering what we need to do to win."
There are plenty of story lines tonight. There is the meeting of close friends Billy Donovan and Anthony Grant, who coached together for 12 years before Grant moved on to VCU and now Alabama.
"The personal relationship with Anthony, I'm very, very happy for him, and he really has done a terrific job," Donovan said.
This is Grant's first trip to Gainesville as a head coach, and he said he'll do everything possible to stay away from the emotions that might come with that, particularly with so much on the line.
"The thing we try to do is stay in the moment," he said Monday. "It's one game at a time, and we've got enough with Florida's team. They are very talented. I've got a lot of respect for what Billy's done, not only this year, but throughout his career, the way his guys play. So our focus is just trying to get prepared for their team right now."
And then there are the seniors. Florida will honor Tyus, Chandler Parsons and redshirt senior Vernon Macklin before tipoff in the O'Connell Center. Parsons and Tyus have accounted for 92 wins (43 for Macklin, who transferred in from Georgetown).
"I think it's going to be very emotional," Parsons said. "I've spent a lot of time in there, had a lot of games, a lot of memories in there. It flew by really fast. But I'm excited to get out there, excited to play there. What's at stake, with the game, we couldn't ask for a better ending — to get the win, on senior night, my last game ever in the O'Dome and get the SEC championship."
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has faced both teams this season and has a firsthand perspective on how the game might play out.
"Being at Florida, obviously that gives them somewhat of an advantage," Pearl said. "But I think it's two really good teams that are both playing really well. I'd give an edge to Alabama if Florida didn't have something to play for because Alabama obviously needs that game to help their chances, help their RPI, help their NCAA Tournament picture. … I think it's going to be a great, great, great, great game. And it's great for the SEC. It's a very even matchup."
On a roll: The women's basketball team will begin play in the SEC Tournament on Thursday as the No. 8 seed and will play No. 9 Arkansas at 1 p.m. Florida (17-13, 7-9) enters the tournament on a three-game winning streak, which includes victories over Mississippi State, at Vanderbilt on Friday and over then-No. 22 Georgia on Sunday. Coach Amanda Butler is hoping the victory and newfound confidence will be a benefit entering the tournament.
"I'm very pleased with the way our team ended the season," Butler said. "It gives us great momentum going back up to Nashville. You can never underestimate how powerful confidence is, or a lack of confidence, and I think we're playing with a lot of confidence right now."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]