Florida didn't close the SEC regular season the way it wanted to, but the sixth-ranked Gators have a good chance to make up for it in the conference tournament.
Top-seeded Florida (26-5) begins its quest for a third consecutive SEC tournament title Friday when they take on fifth-seeded Georgia.The Gators lost three of four before closing the regular season with an 85-72 win over Kentucky on Sunday. Despite the stretch, Florida easily won the regular-season SEC title.Coach Billy Donovan is hoping his team can forget about the tough finish as it makes its case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament."We're entering a new season," he said Monday. "This is the time of year that provides a lot of hope and opportunity to teams across the country that play in conference tournaments. The 16 games we just played was a long grind and I'm happy with the way our guys handled it."Florida struggled offensively in its last five games, averaging 70.0 points and shooting 48.1 percent -- both below season averages of 79.5 and 52.8, respectively. The Gators received lackluster efforts from two starters during that stretch, particularly second-leading scorer Taurean Green and fourth-leading scorer Joakim Noah.Green, who averages 13 points, was held to single digits in four of the team's final five games, while Noah, who averages 12.2 points, was held to just 8.8 points per contest in the last four games. Both players seemed to have snapped out of their slumps in their last game, with each player scoring 17 points against the Wildcats."This is what it's all about right now: March basketball," Noah said. "Let's get everybody on the right mind-set. We know what we have to do. We've just got to take it one step at a time."Noah and Green, as well as Al Horford and Corey Brewer have never suffered a loss in the SEC tournament. The juniors, who were part of Florida's NCAA tournament champion team last season, have won back-to-back SEC titles.Kentucky and Alabama are the only teams to ever win three consecutive tournament titles. The Wildcats did so twice, winning four in a row from 1992-95 and three from 1997-1999, while the Crimson Tide reigned from 1989-1991.All that, Donovan believes, has the potential to make this year's run more difficult than previous years."I can see how kids can get overwhelmed with it all," he said. "It's always a lot easier playing when you're flying under the radar. When you achieve something or you get something there's always baggage that comes with it that you never knew was going to come with it."Florida has won seven straight over Georgia (18-12), and swept two games from its division rival this season. The Bulldogs advanced following an 80-65 win over Auburn on Thursday. Levi Stukes scored 22 points while leading scorer Takais Brown added 19 and a career high-tying 13 rebounds.This was the first time the team is in the quarterfinals since 2004 and just the third time since 1997 -- the last time the Bulldogs reached the semifinals. Georgia last won the SEC Tournament title in 1983, when it also reached the Final Four.Georgia is looking to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. The team finished the regular season .500 in conference play and would need a win Friday if it hopes to have any shot for an NCAA bid."I think you have to play almost a perfect game to beat Florida, so that's all we have on our mind," Brown said.The winner of this game will play either Mississippi or LSU in the semifinals Saturday.