The season is still young, but the early results are in: this Florida Gator basketball team is good. How good? Well that will remain to be seen when the conference schedule begins. You see, we’ve seen this story before. The Gators looking great in the pre-conference schedule and then come back down to earth in the grind that is the SEC schedule. For some reason, though, this seems different.
For one they’ve played some competition. Starting with the half game they played against Big East power Georgetown, to the full game whipping of Big Ten foe Wisconsin, to the absolute wood-shedding of another Big East team Marquette, the Gators have looked really good thus far in the young season.
Coming off back to back elite eight seasons, the Gators lost a huge chunk of their scoring offense when long-time starting point guard Erving Walker graduated and lottery pick sensation Bradley Beal left for the NBA. That left Gator fans nervous wondering which direction this program would head. Would this be a rebuilding year? Would the remaining veterans step up? Would the fantastic freshman class show up and be a factor? The answers thus far would be no, yes, and not necessarily needed.
So far this team has shown no signs of rebuilding. Watching this team you would have no indication that they lost the bulk of their scoring after last season. The veterans? They’ve stepped up. The big focus for Donovan in the offseason was to get the returning veterans to improve their game, increase their roles, and, for some, to play more within the schemes with less ad-libbing.
To this point, they’ve been doing just that. Young is becoming more of a consistent post player, Murphy is rebounding more and becoming more than just a catch and shoot three point shooter on the pick and pop, Rosario, while still apt to make some boneheaded turnovers, is playing better within the system, and Boynton is still the consistent shooter he has been his whole time he’s been in Gainesville.
The main keys to the Gators success this season has been balanced scoring, effective rebounding, and stifling defense.
The Gators lost two prolific scorers in Walker and Beal after last season, but what they gained is a more balance scoring lineup with four guys averaging in double figures. Leading scorer Kenny Boynton, who is likely to leave Gainesville as the all-time leading scorer for the Gators, is averaging over 16 points per game, Erik Murphy who has shown he can score inside or out is averaging just under 13 points per game, Mike Rosario, who has finally come out of Donovan’s doghouse to get into the starting lineup and gain significant playing time, is averaging 11 points per game, and, finally, Patric Young has become more consistent in the post and is averaging 10.4 points per game. Throw in Will Yeguete who is a monster on the boards with put-backs and tip-ins and Scottie Wilbekin who can score from the perimeter or drive the lane and you have a team that is extremely difficult to defend.
One area of concern for Donovan coming into the season was rebounding. With Young playing smaller than his size would dictate, Murphy being more of an outside threat previously, and an overall lack of depth inside, Donovan was very concerned at where the rebounding would come from. Especially when they have to go to a three guard lineup of Rosario, Boynton, and Wilbekin.
“Right now my biggest concern is we don’t rebound,” Donovan said before the season started. “Not at the level that we need to rebound the ball at. Certainly with Rosario, Kenny Boynton, and Scottie Wilbekin out there. Rosario and Boynton are not great rebounders, and nor should they be, they’re two guards. Most of the time their responsibilities is to be back in transition balancing the floor. So to send Mike Rosario to the glass that’s probably something he’s never, ever done his entire career. The one guy I mentioned earlier about sending to the glass would be Scottie. He’s got good size and strength, good athleticism, he’s got good speed, and he’s a pretty good loose ball guy.”
This is one area, though, that, to date, has been a pleasant surprise. So far this season the Gators are 20th in the nation in rebounding margin at 10.6 averaging 40 rebounds per game while giving up 29.4. Young and Murphy both have played more aggressively in the post, Yeguete provides great athleticism, and the guards, particularly Scottie Wilbekin, have stepped up in this area as well. With their offensive abilities and their defensive prowess, if they can keep up this aspect of their game, this team might very well be able to make another deep run in the tournament.
Defense has been the staple of Billy Donovan coached teams. I won’t say his teams are Bo Ryan-esque, but he has always been a proponent of playing good defense to jump start the offense. Donovan likes to pressure the ball from the inbounds pass on down and he likes to mix tough man-to-man with zones to keep the opponent off-balance and not allow them to get into a comfort zone or rhythm. So far that has been the hallmark of this team. Guys like Yeguete and Wilbekin are agile and athletic on the defensive end and are very disruptive. Murphy has length and has a good nose for rebounding. Rosario and Boynton have quick hands and quick feet and can jump start the Gators fast break.
As surprisingly good as the offense has been this season, the defense has been even better. Currently, the Gators are ranked 2nd in the nation in scoring defense at 48.4 points per game. A big part of that is opponent field goal percentage where the Gators are currently ranked 8th in the country at 33.7 percent. Holding teams under 50 points per game will create the opportunity to win a lot of games. Shooting in basketball is streaky. There’s going to be games where seemingly everything falls like it did against Wisconsin where they shot 75% from the field in the first half and 60% for the game. Then there will be games where they can’t buy a shot. Great field goal percentage defense buys time for the offense when the shots aren’t falling keeping them in the game.
So far this season, the Gators have been clicking in all three areas. The offense has been surprisingly good and balance making them difficult to defend. The defense has been suffocating making it hard for opponents to make shots. The bonus for them has been the rebounding advantage that has kept teams from getting second chance opportunities, given the Gator offense more fast break opportunities, and created more favorable match-up opportunities for the Gators to exploit.
After the Marquette game, where the Gators won by by 33 points against a team that faced them in the Sweet Sixteen last year, Billy Donovan was cautious.
“I’m not so sure we’re 30 points better than Marquette,” Donovan said.
Marquette’s coach was less cautious.
“I think they are this good,” Buzz Williams said after the game. “I was saying that before we left Milwaukee. I think they’re good enough to win the whole thing.”
“They played harder than we did and deserve to win,” Vander Blue, Marquette’s star guard said. “That is Florida basketball. It’s what happens in the big-time basketball when you don’t come to play. All praise to Florida. They were better.”
Yes they were better than Marquette. So far they’ve been better than everyone they’ve played. It’s still early but there’s a good chance these guys will be better than most of the teams on their schedule. How much better remains to be seen. But the early returns are in and these guys are very good.