ATHENS — Florida’s O’Connell Center has been a house of horrors for the Georgia Bulldogs the last decade or so. Maybe that will change now that the Gators’ games are now being played in something called the Exactech Arena.
It’s still inside the O’Connell Center, mind you. To be exact, they’re calling it “the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.” Kind of long for a headline or even a lead a paragraph. For brevity purposes we’ll stick with the affectionate local name — “the O-Dome.” But newly renovated at a cost of $64.5 million, they can call it anything they like. The surgical instrumentation manufacturer footed much of the bill for this deal, so Exactech Arena it is.
Anybody who has been there — and I have been a lot — can tell you the makeover was badly needed for the Gators’ home arena. But there hasn’t been anything at all wrong with the way they’ve been playing there. Just ask Georgia about that.
The Bulldogs have lost their last 13 inside the old inflatable roof gym. And most of them haven’t been close. Ten of the last 11 have been decided by double digits. Going back to Georgia’s last win there, 84-79 in 2002, the Gators have beaten the Bulldogs by an average of 16 points on their home floor.
As everybody knows, that says more about the teams that Florida has fielded than the building that it plays in. And this one, coached by Mike White, fits right in with most of those others. The Gators enter Saturday’s noon tipoff with the Bulldogs (11-5, 3-1 SEC) at 13-3 overall and 4-0 in conference play.
The new digs are the least of coach Mark Fox’s concerns.
“It’s a new building in a way, so I’m not sure what to expect with the new set-up,” he said on a teleconference call Friday. “I know how much they’ve changed with the building. They obviously have played only three home games the entire year because of the construction, so the environment may be a little different because of the sight lines and all that. We know that they’ll have a great crowd. They always have and it’s always tough.”
Indeed, the Gators are 3-0 since christening the new set-up on Dec. 15. The construction actually reduced the seating from 11,538 to 10,133. But it’s never the total capacity that has given the O-Dome it’s tough reputation. Besides the regular rotation of McDonald’s All-Americans former coach Billy Donovan was playing with, it’s the rambunctious student section that runs the length of the floor opposite the team benches that created such challenging atmosphere. Those guys get after everybody, including visiting press, to which I can personally attest.
The Georgia team that Fox will bring to Gainesville this year appears to be better than some of his previous ones. The Bulldogs actually have performed relatively well on the road. They’re coming off a nice 69-47 win over Ole Miss in Oxford this past Wednesday. That gave them a 3-2 mark on the road this season. They’ve also won at Georgia Tech and Auburn.
But handling the Gators and this environment is going to be something these players have not yet encountered this season. Turnover-prone as it is, Georgia will face one of the league’s best ball-stealing defenders in Kasey Hill while trying to defend one of the league’s best groups of 3-point shooters.
“We need a complete game from our team, meaning we need to play well on both ends,” Fox said. “We’ve got to take care of the basketball and have good offense and get good shots at the basketball. We need to play balanced and get a number of guys to complete plays. That end is important, but then you have to go to the other end to really defend an offense that has the ability to really spread you out.”
The first bit of good news is J.J. Frazier is fine. The Bulldogs’ dynamic, sharp-shooting point guard was knocked hard to the floor late in Wednesday’s win over Ole Miss and did not return. Fox said Frazier could have returned against the Rebels but wasn’t needed.
Likewise, forward and leading scorer Yante Maten (19.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is fine, and Juwan Parker is coming off a 12-point, 9-rebound effort against Ole Miss. The Bulldogs are playing well at the moment and could really enhance their national reputation and No. 38 RPI with what would be a shocking win in the Gators’ new house.
“Really, what we stress with our players is just trying to play well and play the right way. That’s what we’ll focus on,” Fox said. “I do think we’ve had a lot of true road games. I think that’s probably in the grand scheme of things helpful for our team. But we have to play at a level that can beat a really good team and Florida has another really good team and they’re playing very well. so our focus has to be on the things that will give us a chance to do that.”