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Pregame Shootaround: Florida at Kentucky headlines big day of action

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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN)

CBT’s own Rob Dauster broke down both of our day’s top games yesterday:

Here’s Kentucky’s chance to prove themselves. Here’s their chance to say that they are more than just a talented group of wimps. Florida is as good of a defensive team as you are going to find in the country, largely because they are so versatile in how they can defend. They’ll press. They’ll man. They’ll zone, playing 2-3 or a 1-3-1. They have size. They have tough on-ball defenders in the back court. They have versatile forwards that allow them to switch ball-screens.

Florida is legit. How will Kentucky handle that? They lost at Arkansas. They got beat up at LSU in a game where they could never truly answer the punches the Tigers were throwing. They came much closer to losing at Auburn that Kentucky ever should. Any chance of winning a league title will be on the line here. How will the Wildcats respond?

THE OTHER GAME OF THE DAY: No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, (12:00 p.m., ESPN) :

Memphis lost the last time these two teams tangled in Memphis. Deandre Daniels is the x-factor for UConn, but watching Shabazz Napier deal with Mike Dixon and Joe Jackson will be fun. This one could be huge if either one of these teams wants to emerge from the middle of the American pack and challenge Cincinnati for the league title.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET? West Virginia at No. 19 Texas, (8:00 p.m., LHN):

West Virginia has been one of the most surprising teams in the country. If Jonathan Holmes doesn’t play for Texas, the Mountaineers have a shot. Juwan Staten is the best player in the country you haven’t heard of and Bob Huggins has the Mountaineers playing great ball since Big 12 play began. Does Texas potentially have enough without Holmes?

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Green Bay at Cleveland State (4 p.m., ESPN2)

The top two teams in the Horizon League square off as league No. 1 Green Bay (20-5, 10-2) travels to league No. 2 Cleveland State (18-9, 9-3). Both of these teams are having solid seasons and Green Bay got the best of this matchup when these two teams played in Wisconsin in January. Can Cleveland State get a big win?

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) This will be the last time in the foreseeable future that Maryland and Duke will square off when the two teams face at 6 p.m. In the early 2000s, this was one of the best rivalries in all of college basketball.

2) When VCU travels to No. 12 Saint Louis on Saturday is it two of the best teams in the Atlantic 10? Two of the top ten defenses in the country? It’s probably not going to be pretty. But it will be good. VCU needs a win if they want any chance of winning the A-10 regular season title.

3) Saturday’s game at North Carolina is the last chance that Pitt is going to have before the ACC tournament to land a quality win. They need a quality win.

4) Clemson and Virginia are both grind-it-out teams built around their defense. This may not be a high-scoring game, and that’s better for the Tigers. They’re looking to secure positioning as an at-large candidate.

5) TCU at No. 7 Kansas wouldn’t normally be a must watch game, but Joel Embiid’s health will be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

  • N.C. State at No. 1 Syracuse, 3:00 p.m., ESPN3
  • Air Force at No. 5 San Diego State, 8:05 p.m., CBSSN
  • Houston at No. 10 Cincinnati, 3:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • Texas Tech at No. 11 Iowa State, 1:45 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 16 Iowa at Penn State, 1:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 22 Ohio State at Illinois, 8:00 p.m., BTN

NOTABLES:

  • Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State, 2:00 p.m., ESPN
  • Southern Miss at Middle Tennessee State, 2:00 p.m.
  • UMass at George Washington, 2:00 p.m.
  • Cal at Washington, 3:00 p.m., PAC12
  • Xavier at Marquette, 4:00 p.m., FS1
  • Tennessee at Missouri, 4:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • Ole Miss at Georgia, 4:00 p.m. ESPN3
  • Indiana at Purdue, 4:00 p.m., ESPN
  • LSU at Arkansas, 5:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • Kansas State at Baylor, 7:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • BYU at Saint Mary’s, 8:00 p.m., ESPN2

2014 shooting guard Zach Hodskins verbally commits to Florida

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In mid-August 6-foot-2 shooting guard Zach Hodskins, who had already begun to receive attention from schools at the mid-major level, saw his hard work pay off in the form of an offer to be a preferred walk-on at the University of Florida. A birth defect resulted in Hodskins being born with a left arm that ended just below the elbow, but that hasn’t prevented the Milton, Ga. native from being a productive player at the high school level.

On Saturday, after taking a visit to Florida, Hodskins announced via his Twitter account that he’s committed to the SEC school.

As a preferred walk-on Hodskins wouldn’t have to try out for the team as most walk-ons do; he’ll have a guaranteed spot on Billy Donovan’s roster. His presence can also serve as motivation for other youngsters dealing with disabilities, as Hodskins can be used as an example of what can happen when one works hard and remains determined.

The last one-armed player in college basketball was 6-foot-11 center Kevin Laue, who played three seasons at Manhattan. Laue’s idol growing up was Jim Abbott, who pitched for ten seasons in the major leagues for four different franchises.

Florida ‘partially reinstates’ senior guard Scottie Wilbekin

Florida Gators Wilbekin chases the ball after a turnover as Florida Gulf Coast Eagles Comer tries to recover during the second half in their South Regional NCAA men's basketball game in Arlington
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Indefinite suspensions seem to have become more common in recent years, with the designation allowing college coaches to (in theory) evaluate the suspended player over a length of time in order to make sure that a lesson’s been learned. One player in that position this offseason was Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin, who was suspended by head coach Billy Donovan in June for a violation of team rules.

Separated from his teammates, Wilbekin (who was suspended for three games to start last season) needed to show his coach that he’d made the changes necessary to once again be a valued member of the basketball program. During the team’s media day on Wednesday coach Donovan announced that Wilbekin’s been cleared to rejoin the team when practices begin on Friday (the Gators didn’t take advantage of the new rule that allowed teams to begin practicing on September 27).

But even with the clearance to practice Wilbekin will miss some game action to start the season.

Last season Wilbekin started 29 of the 35 games in which he played, posting averages of 9.1 points and 5.0 assists per game for a team that won 29 games and reached the Elite Eight. With the Gators having to replace their top three scorers (including guards Michael Rosario and Kenny Boynton) Wilbekin’s experience could potentially be an asset for a perimeter rotation that will include freshman Kasey Hill, Rutgers transfer Eli Walker (whenever he’s medically cleared after suffering a fractured leg in February) and sophomore Michael Frazier II (5.6 ppg; member of the USA U-19 World Championship squad).

But Wilbekin’s experience can only help Florida if he remains on the path charted out for him by Donovan and the coaching staff.

Florida also has an important health issue to address in the front court, with forward Will Yeguete (knee) yet to be cleared medically. They’ll work in a pair of transfers (Dorian Finney-Smith and Demontre Harris), with the goal of relieving some of the pressure on senior center Patric Young. At full strength the Gators are likely the team best equipped to challenge preseason favorite Kentucky in the SEC. It’s just a matter of how long it will take them to reach that point.

Florida awaiting medical clearance for Will Yeguete, Eli Carter

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While many college basketball programs have already begun practicing, taking advantage of the new NCAA rule that allows schools to get going 42 days before their season opener (having 30 practices to use), the Florida Gators have yet to hold their first full practice.

Head coach Billy Donovan made the decision to wait until October 11, choosing instead to use this time for individual workouts. The hope is that the Gators will be able to go through preseason practices without having the flow upset by the need to throw in an extra off day in order to satisfy the new NCAA rule.

Could the extra time keep the Gators fresh when games begin on November 8 (Florida opens against North Florida)? With Rutgers transfer Eli Carter (leg) and senior forward Will Yeguete (knee) both yet to be cleared and Scottie Wilbekin still suspended (and working out away from the team), Florida won’t be at full strength when they take the floor a week from Friday.

“[Yeguete] still not cleared to play, don’t know when he’ll be cleared to play,” Donovan said before Wednesday night’s Jimmy V Classic Gala in New York City. “Will not start practice our first day. He’s still in the process of rehabbing.”

Donovan said Carter “still is in the process of recovering” from a broken leg he suffered last February that ended his sophomore season at Rutgers.

How much of an impact Carter has for Florida remains to be seen, but with Wilbekin also sidelined having Carter available would help as Florida looks to develop freshman point guard Kasey Hill.

But there should be no doubting the importance of Yeguete, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Yeguete’s versatility allows him to defend multiple positions, something none of their other front court players were able to do last season. That may change thanks to the presence of Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith and South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris, but neither has Yeguete’s experience in Donovan’s system.

The hope is that both Carter and Yeguete are cleared before the regular season begins, and with the Gators visiting Wisconsin in their second game of the season (November 12) having a game under their belts before the trip to Madison would certainly be optimal.

Scheduling improvements won’t occur overnight for the SEC

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Last season was not a particularly good one for the Southeastern Conference on the basketball court. The conference went through one of its worst seasons in recent history, managing to place just three teams in the NCAA tournament field. While the struggles of the league’s premier program (Kentucky) didn’t help matters, the true culprit for the conference was its non-conference scheduling.

While some programs scheduled ambitiously, putting together a slate that was designed to get them ready for conference play and (hopefully) give them a resume worthy of inclusion in the NCAA tournament field, others cobbled together slates that weren’t befitting of a power conference program. And with some of those teams losing games to programs that reside in the lower regions of Division I, the SEC’s computer numbers took a beating.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State lost to Troy and Alabama A&M. South Carolina lost to Elon. Texas A&M lost to Southern. Vanderbilt lost to Marist. Georgia lost to Youngstown State. Alabama lost to Mercer and Tulane.

And there were plenty of bad wins. The SEC played 30 games against teams Ken Pomeroy ranked 300th or lower out of 347, with every team but Kentucky playing at least one. Arkansas and LSU each played four 300-level teams, which is a virtual invitation to miss the NCAA tournament. Pomeroy rated five SEC schools between 302 and 344 in non-conference strength of schedule: Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.

With that in mind SEC commissioner Mike Slive saw the need to make changes, hiring former NCAA tournament executive Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant and making Mark Whitworth the league’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball (a newly-created position). The conference that has won the last seven national titles in football would now focus on improving its basketball product. And given the way in which some programs have scheduled in recent years, these moves were necessary.

But Rome isn’t built in a day, and a list compiled by ESPN’s Jason King on the ten worst non-conference schedules among power conferences shows that there’s still some work to do in the SEC. Three SEC programs made the list (Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M), but to be fair each has significant question marks to address entering the 2013-14 campaign.

Arkansas has to replace its top two leading scorers (B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell), Mississippi State is in the second year of a massive rebuilding project and Texas A&M lost Elston Turner and Ray Turner (no relation). Those three being called out for their respective non-conference schedules is countered by Kentucky and Florida ranking among the nation’s best, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The SEC’s scheduling issue isn’t about all 14 members putting together brutally difficult schedules, but rather understanding the impact of their non-conference slates on the entire conference and scheduling accordingly. Accomplish that task and the SEC shouldn’t have to worry about going through seasons like the 2012-13 campaign in the future.

Stanley Johnson, Justise Winslow package deal?

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This past weekend at the Under Armour Elite 24 in Brooklyn, the latest potential package deal — one that could punish defenses on the wing in the 2014-2015 season — was born.

Mater Dei High (Calif.) wing Stanley Johnson and St. John’s School (Texas) small forward Justise Winslow told SNY.tv that they have discussed that possibility.

“We got a couple of similar schools on our lists and I think together we can do something real special in college,” Johnson said after earning Co-MVP honors with Emmanuel Mudiay for Team Bed Stuy at Saturday’s Elite 24. “Me and him think similarly so me and him are really  talking about it, trying to get a decision done.”

The commons schools between the two 2014 wings are Arizona, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA, though, Johnson said the two are keying in on Zona, UK and Florida with the USC potentialy becoming an option at some point.  Last week, the 6-foot-6 Johnson has set official visits to the Gainesville, Lexington, Tucson campuses as well as Southern Cal. Winslow told SNY that he is going to once again trim his list of offers; this time he’s be cutting it down to five from eight remaining schools.

“The best one-two punch in the country,” Johnson referred to himself and Winslow if they do make it to the same school.

It seems like these package deals will be tough to actually complete, specifically this one. Both Johnson and Winslow play the same position. Obviously, these two are versatile enough where one could be two-guard, but when you look at the schools that they are both considering, there’s too many factors. What if a guy like James Young remains at Kentucky for a sophomore year? Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson doesn’t appear to be a one-and-done candidate. Billy Donovan already landed a shooting guard for 2014 and like Kentucky is still in play for other elite wings like Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre.

As fun as the Johnson-Winslow combo would be, I’d like to see it before I believe it.

Johnson is ranked No. 8 in the Class of 2014 by Rivals, and Winslow is listed as No. 16, also by Rivals. It should be noted that the 6-foot-6 Winslow has also been rumored to be part of the Jahlil Okafor-Tyus Jones package deal.