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Living on the edge (cont'd)

Posted: Saturday February 24, 2007 10:01PM; Updated: Sunday February 25, 2007 10:48AM
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As reporters waited outside the Florida locker room for Donovan et al to emerge and explain the defeat, a genial security guard ducked inside to check on the status of their postgame speech. He reappeared, moments later, wearing a wide-eyed look and said, "I'll have to say prayers after [hearing] that one."

Donovan had to be particularly concerned about three glaring problems, the first of which was that without Big Baby, the SEC's leading rebounder who was nursing a thigh injury, LSU (15-13, 4-10 SEC) still beat the Gators on the glass by a margin of 35-22. Noah, who one would have expected to have a field day in the Baby-less frontcourt, scored only four points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes, making it the third time in the past five games that he's failed to score in double figures. And floor general Taurean Green was thoroughly shut down by Temple's stifling D, shooting just 1-of-7 from the field and recording one assist in 31 minutes, and causing Donovan to question some of his decisions in the departments of shot selection and offensive execution. Green's lack of focus seemed symptomatic of a larger team problem: "If you don't come ready to play, and you don't have real good focus, you can get exposed," Donovan said. "And I thought our team got exposed."

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The diagnosis from junior forward Al Horford, who was one of Florida's few bright spots, leading the team in points (13) and rebounds (9), focused on defense. "If things aren't going well on offense" -- the Gators shot 1-of-17 from long distance -- "guys quit on defense," Horford said. "And we never did that last year, so that's something that we have to deal with."

And yet, despite all the signs suggesting the Gators are vulnerable -- or even worse, doomed to not realize their goal of a repeat -- there is so much evidence that they're actually a better team than the one that took Indianapolis by storm last March. Entering Saturday's game Florida was ahead of its 2006 efficiency numbers in both offense (121.5 in '07, compared to 119.4 in '06) and defense (85.8 to 87.2). Green, whose floor general-work was sub-par against LSU, is having the best offensive season of his career (a 118.1 personal offensive rating compared to 108.8 last year). The Gators are already the SEC's regular-season champs, an honor that eluded them in '05-06. And the last time they squared off against a top-10 team, hosting Ohio State on Dec. 23, the result was a gruesome slaughter.

What's missing from the Gators that was there last April -- and appeared to be there in December against the Buckeyes -- is an intangible, according to Donovan. "There has to be a level of nervousness when you're competing -- a level of edge, and a level of concern," he said. "What happens is, that level of edge and concern starts to disappear the more you win."

Are the Gators so decorated that the "edge" will elude them when they need it most, deep in the dance? When the NCAA tournament favorite loses on the eve of March to the likely NIT favorite, there's reason for worry. But when you take a hard look at Florida's résumé, you tend to dwell less on its two SEC losses than you do its three lottery picks, and less on its statistical struggles against LSU than its statistical dominance of this season. And you get the sneaking suspicion that despite what the Gators are saying, their latest slump might amount to nothing more than a tease, a way to lower the heat -- and the expectations -- before the real champs come back to life.

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