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Gators Looking For Breakthrough on the Road at Tennessee

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By Chris Harry

GatorZone Contributing Writer 

 

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Billy Donovan talks often about the process his Florida basketball team has to go through to reach its immense potential. 

 

Somewhere in that process are growing pains, and the Gators had their share as they navigated a highly competitive non-conference schedule that included losses at powerful Ohio State and currently No. 1-ranked Syracuse that most would have expected, but also a disappointing double-overtime loss at Rutgers that few would have seen coming. 

 

Those three games are the only blemishes on UF’s record. They are also the only true road games the Gators have played this season. 

 

The fourth is set for Saturday when No. 13 Florida (12-3) is at Tennessee (7-7) for the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams. Considering the Gators are 0-3 on the road this season and have eight road games on their league schedule a visit to Thompson-Boling Arena certainly would qualify as a key step in the so-called process. 

 

 “We’ve seen the mistakes we’ve made on the road,” junior guard Kenny Boynton said. 

 

A lot of people have. Those trio of road setbacks were all ESPN games, which means national-television audiences saw the Gators throw the ball to the other team, make poor choices in halfcourt execution and take some ill-advised shots.

 

With an ESPN2 tipoff scheduled for a little after 11 a.m., some hoops-watchers may unknowingly tune in a little late for the Gators and Volunteers, but Donovan’s concern is that his players are up, about, energized and ready to get the SEC season off on a positive note. 

 

“A whole new season is starting,” freshman guard Bradley Beal said of his inaugural league game. “We just really want to come in as a team, focus and play our game.” 

 

The best way to do that is not help the Vols with theirs. As in taking care of the basketball. 

 

In UF’s 12 wins, the Gators averaged 9.9 turnovers per game. In the three losses, that number ballooned to 18 per game. Nearly twice as many. 

 

Beal, who had six turnovers at Rutgers, is just a collegiate rookie, but he can probably figure out what a dozen and a half turnovers -- which means 18 fewer chances to score -- can do for the momentum of an SEC team playing on its home floor.

“We’re at our best when we’re playing together, and that means being focused and mentally prepared for the game,” Beal said. “I think sometimes we lack that focus. Honestly, I don’t think we had our best practices before those [losses] and it caught up to us. We know that now and we’re going to be well prepared this time.” 

 

One thing working to the Gators advantage is a core of players returning from the 2010-11 team that won the SEC regular-season title in great part by going 6-2 on the road. 

 

“Last year’s team had great focus,” Boynton said. 

 

There’s that F-word again. 

 

For Donovan, the big-picture definition of focus has become the concept of playing the right way. For this team, that requires some highly gifted offensive players being willing to share the ball, making the extra pass and resisting the scorer’s mentality urges that have been with them probably their entire basketball lives. 

 

When they’re not filing a certain column in the stat sheet, they tend to hang their heads. That needs to change. 

 

“I think we’ve got guys who care and I think sometimes they get a little down on themselves and maybe too critical of themselves,” Donovan said. “They’ve got to realize whether they’re missing or making shots isn’t the issue. The issue is whether they’re taking good shots.”

 

Better yet, whether they’re passing up good shots to get a teammate a better one. That’s when this highly combustible Florida team is at its best. 

 

All five starters are capable of a 20-point outburst -- all five have scored at least 18 points in a game; four of the five at least 22; two of the five at least 25 -- and when the ball is snapping around the court, and center Patric Young is getting his touches in the low post, the Gators are a very difficult team to defend. 

 

That version has shown up enough to be tops among SEC teams in assist-to-turnover ratio. It has yet, however, to show up on the road. 

 

Now would be a good time to start. 

 

“We have to see how we match up against another SEC team to know where we are,” said Boynton, who rates second in the league in scoring at 19.5 points per game. “After the Tennessee game, we’ll know a little more.”

 

All part of the process. 

=================================== 

 

GATORS GAME BOX

No. 13 Florida at Tennessee

Tip-off: Saturday, 11 a.m. (Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.) 

Records: Florida 12-3, Tennessee 7-7  

TV: ESPN2 (w/Mark Jones and Jimmy Dykes)

Radio: Gator Radio Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Tennessee notes  

Need to know: The Southeastern Conference opener for both teams will mark the 122nd meeting between the two programs, dating to 1927. Tennessee leads the series 69-52, but Florida is 16-15 under Coach Billy Donovan, with four straight wins, including an 81-75 overtime victory at Knoxville last Jan. 11. ... All five UF starters average in double-figures, led by the guard trio of Kenny Boynton (19.5 ppg), freshman Bradley Beal (14.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and senior Erving Walker (13.7 ppg, 5.3 apg). ... Florida’s offense ranks fifth nationally at 85.4 points per game and leads the nation with 169 3-pointers, for 11.3 per game. ... After the double-overtime loss at Rutgers, the Gators shot 52 percent from the floor and 56.3 percent from the 3-point line in wins over Yale and Alabama at Birmingham. ... UF went 7-1 on the road in SEC play last season en route to a 13-3 league mark that helped the Gators grab the fifth conference title in school history. ... The Volunteers are in their first season under Cuonzo Martin, who replaced the fired Bruce Pearl. Martin, once a star player for Gene Keady at Purdue and teammate of Wooden Award winner Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, spent the previous three seasons at Missouri State, which he led to a Missouri Valley Conference title. ... G Trae Golden is the lone starter returning from last year’s UT squad and leads the Vols in scoring (14.8 ppg) and assists (5.3). ... Tennessee is a decent defensive team, allowing just 5.9 makes from 3-point range per game, but they’re undersized (sort of like the Gators), with their best low post option being beefy 6-7, 265-pound Jeronne Maymon (11.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), who should be an interesting matchup against UF’s 6-9, 247-pound Patric Young. .... UT had won four straight before a 69-51 loss Wednesday at Memphis, the second time the Vols fell to the in-state Tigers this season. 

 

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