Super sophs put the teeth into Gators' bite

Thursday, March 9, 2006 at 1:00am

Florida at a glance
Coach: Billy Donovan (10th season; 217-98)
Regular-season record: 24-6
Last SEC Tournament title: 2005
Leading scorer: F Joakim Noah (14.1)
Leading rebounder: C Al Horford (7.4)
MVP: In his first season as a starter, point guard Taurean Green leads the SEC in assists, is second in free-throw shooting and sixth in 3-point shooting.
Sleeper: Guard Lee Humphrey can be a quiet killer from the perimeter and is shooting a league-high 46.7 percent from 3-point territory.
Best win this season: Toppled SEC champion LSU 71-62 on Feb. 11 in Gainesville.
Most disappointing loss: If nothing else, a 71-67 home loss to South Carolina on Feb. 8 motivated the Gators to beat LSU three days later.
Fogler's Focus
"They had a great start but hit the wall. They're playing better lately. They have the best young big people in the Southeastern Conference and have the four best big guys in the league. Noah is terrific. He's a star."

Little was expected this season from Florida, last year's SEC Tournament champions, after losing its top three scorers.

But in a classic case of addition by subtraction, the Gators, despite some late-season stumbles, have ranked as perhaps the league's most surprising team this year outside of Knoxville. They finished 24-6 overall and second in the SEC East.

A talented and emerging sophomore class has led the charge. Point guard Taurean Green, swingman Corey Brewer and post players Joakim Noah and Al Horford are Florida's top four scorers and lead the way in virtually every other statistical category.

"This whole group of sophomores didn't have a lot of experience in playing and had to grow up quickly," Coach Billy Donovan said.

Florida's 24 regular-season victories are the most since 2002-03, and a hot start vaulted the Gators to the No. 2 slot in both national polls earlier this season. Donovan, however, wasn't buying it.

"I think it's very evident we're not a top-five or top-10 or top-15 team," he said. "We were given that. But we didn't necessarily deserve it."

Sure enough, Florida hit a February skid and lost three straight SEC games. They still nailed down a second-place finish and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament by winning at Kentucky on Sunday.

SEC coaches marveled at Donovan's ability to keep winning this season with a young and revamped lineup.

"They're better because winning is really important to them," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Individual agendas are not important to them. They have played defense in the past, played together in the past and played hard in the past, but I don't know that they have done all three of those things with the consistency that this team has done it with."

- Brett Hait

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