Florida has gotten back to level in the SEC, with wins over Arkansas and LSU. Tonight, the Gators (13-5, 2-2 SEC) face South Carolina (11-7, 2-2), who have fallen back to level. While Florida started with SEC undefeateds Kentucky and Vanderbilt, South Carolina started with Auburn and LSU. After losses to Ole Miss and Vandy, the Gamecocks have fallen away from the top, putting more pressure on a divisional game.
South Carolina's best asset is guard Devan Downey, who leads the SEC with 21.2 points per game. With Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Ray Shipman, Florida simply has no one who can guard Downey. He can be slowed down and forced into taking bad shots. But he is taking bad shots because he is the best chance South Carolina has to win. Downey will get his 20 points. Florida can either let him get 20 by shooting 7-20 from the field (like Ole Miss did this week), or not defend well and let Downey shoot better than 50% and score 30 (as he did against Auburn and the loss to Vandy).
The Gators will have a size advantage tonight, as South Carolina does not have the height to challenge the new front line of Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. With Dan Werner finally sent to the bench, Florida has a much different offensive dynamic. Boynton and Walker are scorers, even when they run cold. Parsons, as much as everyone would like him to be bigger and physical, is not going to become that guy. But at least he is willing to go to the hoop and can contribute without scoring, as he showed against Arkansas. Macklin is the guy that needs to be a stud. He is a natural center in a league with few of them. But he does not yet have a double digit rebounding night. How is that possible? I understand he is worried about foul trouble, but he has the ability to be a double-double guy.
Calling games in January "must win" seems like a stretch, but with UK, Tennessee and Vandy ripping it up, Florida has to stay close. It is becoming apparent that the East division will beat up on the West, making it harder for Florida to make up ground. The first way to make up ground though is winning on your home court.