Alabama prepares for battle with Florida

The Alabama men’s basketball team will travel to Gainesville, Fla., to battle the No. 8 Florida Gators on Saturday March 2.

The Crimson Tide (19-9, 11-4 SEC) trail the Gators (22-5, 12-3) by one game in the Southeastern Conference standings. A victory would give Alabama its 20th win of the year and would be the Tide’s third consecutive 20-win season.

Senior guard Andrew Steele said his team is in a perfect position to close out season on its own terms and being in second place in the SEC motivates his teammates.

“It’s really exciting,” Steele said. “We set our goals at the beginning of the year and for us to be 15 games in and have complete control of what we do going forward, it’s exciting. Just the opportunity to be able to play again is exciting in itself. But we understand everything’s at stake. I think our guys are going to be ready to go.”

Steele said this is just another game to him, and he and the rest of the team can’t overreact because of Florida’s impressive season.

“Every game we play is a big game,” Steele said. “I think one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to make the game bigger than what it is. We respect Florida. They’re a good team. But they’re 12-3, we’re 11-4. It’s not like we’re going to go in thinking we’re in over our heads. We fully expect to go out and win.”

But the past doesn’t favor Alabama. The Tide has lost eight straight games at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, dating back to 1995. The Gators have won five consecutive games against the Tide and 16 of the last 19 meetings.

Head coach Anthony Grant served as an assistant coach under Billy Donovan at Florida from 1996-2006. But that doesn’t mean Grant has an inside track at beating his former colleague. Donovan is 10-2 when he faces former assistants, including a 4-0 record against Grant.

Grant said the Gators possess a suffocating defense that Alabama will have to play soundly against to win.

“This is a team that defensively is ranked the best in our league in terms of points allowed, holding their opponents field goal percentages down and 3-point percentage down, as well,” Grant said. “Being able to take care of the basketball, find quality shots and score at a consistent pace, those things – like every game – we’ve got to do a good job there.”

If anyone on the Tide’s roster has played consistently in recent games it has been junior guard Trevor Releford.

Releford has played his best basketball when it has mattered most. In the last three games, he has averaged 24.7 points, 3.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game and is shooting 63.4 percent (26-41) from the field and 53.5 percent (8-15) from the 3-point line. He is four points shy of becoming the 36th player in Alabama history to score 1,200 points in a career.

Grant praised Releford for acting as a leader and spreading a contagious tenacity throughout the rest of the team.

“I think he’s played extremely well,” Grant said. “I’ve said this forever that when he’s locked in he’s as good as any guard in this league. I think he’s been really focused here of late.

“I think he’s playing very good basketball. As a team, I think our guys are feeding off of the energy he’s providing.”

The game will tip off at 11 a.m. CT and will be televised on ESPN.