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Gators not planning to rest just yet

As they prepare to begin play in the Southeastern Conference tournament, the Gators find themselves in an interesting quandary.

Their star player, first-team All-SEC forward Matt Bonner has plantar fascitis in his right foot, an injury that requires exercise, rehabilitation and rest.

But if Florida is to accomplish one of its major goals, rest is not in the cards.

Though the Gators have a first-round bye, they need to win three games in three days to earn the first SEC tournament championship in school history and make a stronger case for at least a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To win or to rest? That is the question.

Except in Bonner's mind.

"We're trying to win the tournament championship, that's what we want to do is win championships," Bonner said. "No matter what, that's why you play. Every game you play is for a championship. And we've never won, we always lose on the second day. I don't know (if I'll hold up for three straight games), but there's not much you can do. So I'm going to just try to roll with the punches and see what happens."

It is about all the Gators can do.

Bonner's injury surfaced after the Georgia game March 4, but the Gators had three days off before playing Kentucky. In preparation for Friday's quarterfinal game against the winner of today's Arkansas-LSU game, Bonner will have had five days of rest. No one, including the senior from Concord, N.H., knows how well he'll hold up with games on consecutive days.

"That's definitely a concern," coach Billy Donovan said. "The unknown factor in this is we've never had a day when he's had to play back-to-back games or play, take a day off then play again like in the NCAA Tournament. That is a level of concern because it hasn't happened yet."

The players seem to be concerned more about potential opponents than their captain.

"I think if you look at the situation, it's Bonner and he's going to come through no matter what," said guard Anthony Roberson, who on Wednesday was named SEC Freshman of the Year. "He's going to find a way to help us even if he isn't playing. He'll be on the bench giving his all. We'll make a positive out of it no matter what."

At 24-6, Florida is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but back-to-back losses to Georgia and Kentucky have left the Gators among several teams, including Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, still trying to lock down a high seed _ and a trip to Tampa for first- and second-round games.

"The more you win, the more it's going to help your seeding, the more of an opportunity to play in Tampa," Donovan said. "There's a lot on the line for our basketball team."

Florida is 20-37 in the SEC tournament. Donovan is a proponent of moving the tournament to a Wednesday through Saturday event to give teams more time to rest before the NCAA Tournament, but he isn't sure why Florida has not fared better.

The Gators have wins over Arkansas and LSU, who have caused Florida trouble in previous years.

"I think we're walking into a similar situation again this year," Donovan said. "We've always played a first-round game, and then after we've played a first-round game we always play a team that we really have beaten pretty handily. Last year, we beat Mississippi State by 30-something points at home (and lost to the Bulldogs in the SEC tournament). In 2000, we had a similar situation with Auburn, where we beat them decisively at home. Our guys need to understand that if LSU (wins), we beat them by 17 but they are playing very well right now and our guys need to understand that."

SEC MEN'S TOURNAMENT

WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday, New Orleans Superdome.

TV/RADIO: All games with the exception of Friday's 7:30 p.m. quarterfinal game will be on Sunshine. Saturday's semifinals will be on Ch. 38, and Sunday's championship game is at 1 p.m. on Ch. 10.

FAVORITE: Kentucky. The Wildcats ran the table in the conference this season, becoming the second team to go 16-0 in SEC play since the 1996 team did it and went on to win the national championship. With the exception of Saturday's two-point win over Florida and a close win against Georgia nearly two weeks ago, Kentucky has looked unstoppable. The Wildcats are led by SEC Player of the Year Keith Bogans and has a talented cast that plays the league's best defense. Assuming they are focused on a conference championship and not looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, it's hard to imagine the Wildcats not earning their 24th tournament title.

DARK HORSE: Tennessee. Georgia's loss is the Vols' gain. When Georgia officials decided to remove themselves from the tournament, Tennessee earned a bye and an opportunity to rest on Day 1. The Vols picked up the pace late in the season and are led by the league's leading scorer, power forward Ron Slay. Beating Auburn isn't a given _ their only meeting of the season was a three-point win by the Vols. But Tennessee is 6-4 in its past 10, and Auburn is 4-10. Both need a good showing to lock up an NCAA berth.

LOCKS FOR NCAA TOURNAMENT: Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, Alabama, LSU. The Wildcats are most likely a No. 1 seed, and Florida still is trying to convince the selection committee it deserves the same, but could end up a No. 2 or 3 seed.

ON THE BUBBLE: Auburn, Tennessee.

WHAT UF HAS TO DO: Hope Matt Bonner can hang on and play with his plantar fascitis. Florida's supporting cast includes AP and SEC Freshman of the Year Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, David Lee and Justin Hamilton _ all among the league's best. But as Bonner proved in last week's loss against Kentucky, the Gators desperately need him to make a serious run in the conference and NCAA tournaments. Florida leads the league in 3-point shooting and will need to shoot well this weekend. The Gators have never won an SEC tournament, so whether that will weigh them down remains to be seen. The Gators are playing as well as they have all season, so they have a chance to make it to the title game.

_ Compiled by Antonya English.

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