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January 31, 2014

Gators aim to avoid pitfalls in SEC play



There are college basketball conferences that resemble courses fit for golf's U.S. Open. Seemingly insurmountable par-5s, shorter holes with enough traps to cost you strokes, a palpable sense that near perfection is needed to pass each challenge.

The Southeastern Conference is more of an executive course, characterized by loads of par-3s and large, approachable greens. It's forgiving. A team can march into Starkville, Miss., five days after a big win and leave with an 11-point victory without playing its best.

Meet 2014 Florida, 7-0 in the SEC and on a 12-game winning streak.

"Play harder was the number one key. Play like a championship team and don't play to [Mississippi State's] level," senior center Patric Young said after Thursday night's game. "No disrespect to Mississippi State, but they're not going to probably win an SEC Championship this year. We have an opportunity to do that, and we need to play to the championship-caliber level that we've been doing the whole year and don't let them affect our chance of achieving that."

Like an honors student in remedial classes, or a golfer, the Gators are forced to build their own excitement and execution from within. The marquee games that you mark months ahead of time are few and far between this time of year.

Florida starts a three-game homestand Saturday afternoon at 4 against Texas A&M. The three teams it will play during that stretch are a combined 10-11 in SEC play. The Gators have built a two-game lead on Kentucky and Ole Miss in seven games.

Billy Donovan is doing his best to make his players' vision akin to a rare Florida tunnel, but it's difficult to avoid lapses when your conference has one other team ranked in the top-25.

"Our guys, for the most part, are great kids. They work very hard. They want to win. They're very coachable," Donovan said. "But like anything else, when you're in a competitive situation, a competitive environment, there's going to be breakdowns. There's going to be mistakes. I just thought we had too many of them (against Mississippi State) in terms of what we normally have done in the past."

Minor falters like Thursday night allow Florida motivation for growth without suffering the significant setback that losing to a team ranked No. 147 in RPI would be. Saturday marks another O'Connell Center sellout to watch a team trying to get enthusiastic about waterless par-3s until it finds a course it can sink its teeth into.

The SEC might not be so easy after all.

"We've got a lot of room to grow and get better," Donovan said. "We need to play better (Saturday) than we did on Thursday night."


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