GAINESVILLE — Talk to any college basketball coach this time of year, and he'll always say this is when you want your team to play its best.
As the Florida Gators head into SEC tournament play, how well they are playing is up for debate. What isn't up for discussion is that when the fourth-seeded Gators face fifth-seeded Auburn on Thursday night in the first round in Nashville, they'd better play their best that night.
The Gators need at least one win in the tournament, possibly more, to earn their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2007. Yet Florida is on a three-game losing streak and has fallen behind by double digits in the first half in all three games before battling back late.
Florida coach Billy Donovan was unavailable on Monday's SEC teleconference because of a scheduling conflict, but associate head coach Larry Shyatt said it's tough to pinpoint the cause of the Gators' troubles early in games.
"I don't think there's been a pattern, and that's what we usually look for, is there a pattern, is there a reason behind this?" Shyatt said. "But certainly it's something we're going to talk about. We don't want to get behind and be that comeback team."
In the past two seasons, the Gators are 7-12 in February and March, 5-7 in their final six regular-season games.
Yet league coaches are coming to the Gators' defense. Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday that he believes Florida should be among the 65 NCAA Tournament teams, and Georgia coach Mark Fox echoed that sentiment.
"I think Florida deserves to go," Fox said. "They've played in one of the toughest divisions in America; they've got quality wins outside of league play. I think every team has a bad loss somewhere along the way (the Gators lost to Georgia two weeks ago), but Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida deserve to go from our league."
For weeks the Gators have avoided the topic, saying everything would take care of itself. Now, they're forced to face the reality. The best way to get off the bubble? Stop losing.
"It's time that you've got to win some games," Shyatt said. "It doesn't really matter if it's pretty or ugly, you've got to win some games."
Early success: The Florida baseball team is 7-2 and won two of three in a weekend series against Miami. Gators SS Nolan Fontana was a big part of that success. He went 8-for-14 (.571) in four games last week and for his efforts was named SEC freshman of the week. It was the first regular-season series win over Miami since 2007. During the trip to Coral Gables, Fontana went 7-for-11 (.636) with four runs, two stolen bases and a perfect fielding percentage in 11 chances. Tampa P Tommy Toledo, who missed all of last season recovering from a shoulder injury, is 2-0. The No. 6 Gators host Illinois State at 6:30 p.m. today.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.