Score one for experience
The Florida Gators, who returned all five starters from last season's NCAA tournament basketball team, lead the Southeastern Conference's East Division because of their late-game productivity. Florida outlasted Kentucky, 70-68, in Gainesville on Saturday night to improve to 7-2 in league play, and the Gators have overtime wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt and a double-overtime triumph at Georgia.
"We could have very easily lost all those games, and our record would look very different right now if we had dropped those," Florida coach Billy Donovan said Monday. "Being around the game in this league for as long as I have, you realize how fragile it all is -- the line between winning and losing and coming close. You try to remind your players that just because we've won some close ones doesn't mean that is going to be the trend the rest of the year.
"I think it takes a level of humility from your guys to understand there are times you can get better from those situations, and every coach would tell you he loves to teach those lessons through winning those kinds of games. We've obviously got an older group of guys, and that helps."
Florida held somewhat comfortable leads late in regulation against Tennessee and Georgia, whereas its overtime win over Vandy followed a back-and-forth 40 minutes.
Heading the veteran Gators right now is 6-foot-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons, who dominated the second overtime in Athens and is the SEC player of the week for his performances against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. He tallied 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists against the Wildcats and didn't commit a turnover.
"A team that is experienced is not overrated," UK coach John Calipari said. "It is a big benefit."
No break needed
Tennessee and Vanderbilt stepped out of conference last month to face Connecticut and St. Mary's, and now it's Georgia's turn. The Bulldogs, who are 38th in the RPI, will play at home tonight against Xavier, which is 25th in the RPI.
"We just saw an opportunity to play a Top 25-level team and strengthen our schedule, and the fact it's coming this time of year is just the way it would work," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "We're going to sacrifice that off day that we would get in the SEC schedule, but with our age and depth that shouldn't be a factor."
Georgia and Xavier met in the 2008 NCAA tournament, when the Muskateers snuffed out any Cinderella run for the SEC tourney champion, 73-61.
Alabama's 7-1 league record at the midway mark is a product not only of the stingy Crimson Tide defense but also the play of freshman point guard Trevor Releford.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder from Kansas City had 16 points, eight assists and eight steals in last Wednesday's win over Mississippi State and had four assists and the clinching free throws in Saturday's overtime upset of Tennessee. Releford is the SEC freshman of the week.
"To come in and have the minutes and the responsibilities he's had, I think he's handled it extremely well," Tide coach Anthony Grant said. "In my opinion, he's one of the best young guards in the league, if not the country, and I think our team has gained more confidence in what he brings to the table."
Odds and ends
The latest NCAA bracket projection by ESPN has half the SEC in the field -- Kentucky (as a 4 seed), Florida (5), Vanderbilt (6), Tennessee (7), Alabama (12) and Georgia (12). ... Auburn sophomore center Rob Chubb remains suspended for his arrest on alcohol-related charges, which occurred several hours after he scored a career-best 18 points at South Carolina on Jan. 29. ... Georgia is 4-0 this season against SEC West teams after going 1-5 last year. ... Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl on what he learned from the eight-game suspension: "Make sure I never run afoul of the rules, or if I'm involved in an investigation, never to compromise."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.