Florida Gators basketball facing biggest challenge to NCAA Tournament hopes

GAINESVILLE — Not too long ago, the upcoming stretch of the Florida basketball season seemed like a sure bet to end the Gators' hopes of avoiding back-to-back trips to the NIT.

Florida had lost three of four games, including one meltdown against the worst team in the league (Georgia).

And the Gators' weaknesses, particularly their lack of size in the frontcourt, seemed to be getting worse instead of better.

But after the most all-around team effort of the conference season in a double-digit win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Gators (21-6, 8-4 SEC) are riding a new wave of confidence as they head into the homestretch beginning tonight at LSU.

It's possible the Gators are evolving from a group that has relied too heavily on sophomore G Nick Calathes all season to a more well-rounded unit.

"I think it (Saturday's win) gives us a lot of confidence," Calathes said. "I think each guy on the team is getting better. And that's what we need. We need everyone to get better, and we need everyone on the team. We need Kenny (Kadji), we need Ray (Shipman), we need Allan (Chaney) — we need everybody. And that's the main focus for us, to give help and get help from everybody else."

But it'll take more than confidence to get a win tonight. The Tigers (23-4, 11-1) are the league's best team and are on an eight-game winning streak. They rely on five seniors and a fifth-year junior. Some have Final Four experience.

"It's a great opportunity to play them," UF assistant coach Larry Shyatt said. "Our guys get a chance to play a team that's not only won 11 in a row in the league but to play it on their homecourt. It's probably as good an opportunity as we could have at this point in the season."

A point in the season that is critical. After LSU, the Gators host Tennessee, travel to Mississippi State (the second-best team in the SEC West) then close the regular season with a home game against Kentucky.

"It's huge," sophomore F Chandler Parsons said. "Just to go there and play against the No. 1 team in the SEC, they've got great players, we've got great players. We're prepared for a war, and we're going to expect them to really come at us and play physical. But I think we're ready for it."

In LSU, the Gators face a team that leads the league in offensive rebounding (40 per game) and rebounding margin (plus-6.9). Florida has struggled with solid rebounding teams.

"Really they personify what you would want out of a veteran team: They are a terrific defensive team, and they rebound the ball well," Shyatt said. "And those are usually products of maturity and age. Every coach we've talked to that has played them has talked about you're not going to be overly impressed with new trickery with their offense. But what you are going to be unable to get a feel for until you play them live is the veracity in which they go at the glass. They are like pit bulls, is what a couple of people in our league describe them as. … When you know your warts, and our team has been pretty frank with what we are not doing well at times. I think it's a great challenge."

Nice start: The baseball team opened the season last weekend with a sweep of then-No. 8 Louisville. The three victories vaulted the Gators a nation-best 13 spots from No. 25 to No. 12 in the Collegiate Baseball poll.

And on Monday, senior Patrick Keating was named SEC pitcher of the week after capturing the Gators' season opener with a seven-inning outing, and a career-high seven strikeouts, in a 6-3 win Friday night.

Florida plays Eastern Michigan in a two-game midweek series beginning tonight, then hosts No. 14 Miami (3-1) in a weekend series starting Friday.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Florida Gators basketball facing biggest challenge to NCAA Tournament hopes 02/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 23, 2009 6:50pm]

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