Their football teams will battle for the national championship in about two weeks, but Ohio State and Florida can earn some early bragging rights when they meet on the hardcourt Saturday.
In what could also be a Final Four preview, the third-ranked Buckeyes visit the No. 5 Gators in just the second meeting in Gainesville between top 5 teams.
Second-ranked Kentucky beat No. 3 Florida 69-67 on March 8, 2003, something the Gators hope doesn’t happen again against the Buckeyes (10-1). Florida (10-2) has won 21 consecutive home games against non-conference competition.
The contest features a matchup of some of the nation’s best big men. Florida center Al Horford was cleared to play Saturday despite a high ankle sprain, and he’ll team with Joakim Noah as the Gators attempt to handle Ohio State’s 7-foot freshman sensation Greg Oden.
Horford is averaging 13.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, and helps open up the perimeter for Florida’s 3-point shooters with his work in the post.
Noah, the Final Four’s most outstanding player, is averaging 12.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and shooting 66.3 percent from the field.
This game was circled on the calendars long before it was determined that the Buckeyes and Gators would meet for the football national championship. No school has ever won a football and basketball title in the same academic year, but both schools have a great chance this season.
Donovan became the winningest coach in program history with an 88-67 victory over Stetson on Wednesday. He passed Norm Sloan and is 236-100 in 11 seasons in Gainesville.
The 7-foot Oden sat out the first seven games while recovering from surgery on his right wrist, but since he’s returned, he’s flashed the ability that made him the nation’s No. 1 recruit and one of the best center prospects in years.
Oden, who likely would have been the top pick in the NBA draft had the league not changed its rules and forced players to be at least one year out of high school, has been a force in the middle for Ohio State. He’s averaging 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds despite playing with a plastic cast to protect his right hand and wrist and tape on his left hand from a jammed thumb he said he’s struggled with for weeks.
Oden is shooting 73.5 percent (25-for-34) from the field, but hasn’t played in enough games to qualify for the lead in any statistical categories. He had 18 points and nine rebounds in Ohio State’s 75-56 win over Iowa State on Tuesday.
“I hope I’m ready. It is a really big game,” Oden said of the matchup with Florida. “We have got to come in and play hard. Even with Iowa State today, we have to realize that teams are going to bring it. They had some crazy shots today and everyone on the court had to be ready for some rebounds.”
The Buckeyes have led at halftime in every game this season and have held their last four opponents under 60 points. The last time they didn’t was a 98-89 loss to then-No. 7 North Carolina on Nov. 29, Ohio State’s only defeat of the season. It’s also their only road game so far and their first matchup with a ranked team.
Florida lost 82-80 in overtime to then-No. 10 Kansas on Nov. 25, its only game against a ranked opponent.
Ohio State leads the series with Florida 5-2, although the schools haven’t met since 1988.