The Florida Gators travel to Tallahassee tonight to take on rival the Florida State Seminoles.
The 6-0 Gators haven’t played since their dismantling of last season’s Sweet Sixteen opponent Marquette last Thursday in the SEC-Big East Challenge 82-49 at the O’Connell Center.
Meanwhile Florida State limps into this match-up at 4-3 coming off consecutive home losses to Minnesota last week and to underdog Mercer on Sunday. After losing six seniors off last year’s ACC champion team, the Seminoles have played inconsistently in the early part of the season. They did return four of their top five scorers from last season and three of their top four rebounders so they definitely have some talent. Before the season, head coach Leonard Hamilton was optimistic about the returning players as well as the youngsters he brought in this season.
“I believe that we have a group of guys returning that I think is going to give us some tremendous leadership and stability to keep us moving forward,” Hamilton said. “I also think we have an underrated group of youngsters coming in that might be able to contribute right away. We were very excited about this group as a whole, and because we have added some really good players to an already talented group, we feel confident that we will continue to grow as a team.”
The Gators are facing the possibility that they will be without 6’10” power forward Erik Murphy against FSU. He suffered a hip pointer in the victory over Marquette and hasn’t practiced since. If he is unable to go it would be a big blow for the Gators who already lack depth and superior height in the post. The Seminoles present match-up problems for the Gators with three seven footers on the roster, 7-3 freshman Boris Bojanovsky, 7-0 junior Kiel Turpin, and 7-0 freshman Michael Ojo. If Murphy is out they would be severely tested inside leaving 6-9 Patric Young as the only Gator player over 6-7. Donovan did mention he’s been happier with Young’s effort since benching him for the start of the Marquette game due to inconsistent practice habits.
“Patric, I think, has responded very, very well, and I’m really happy with the way he’s responded,” Donovan said yesterday. “Not only in the game, he’s responded well in practice. That’s what he needs to do. He practiced very, very well yesterday and it impacted our team in a very positive way.”
If Murphy is unable to go it’s still unclear which direction Donovan will go with the lineup. They would be forced to either go with a three guard lineup with the athletic 6-7 Will Yeguete at power forward or start Yeguete and 6-6 Casey Prather at the two forward slots. With or without Murphy they will be tested on the boards in this one.
One of the big strengths for the Gators this season has been their balanced scoring with four players averaging in double figures led by guard Kenny Boynton who has been playing the point while Scottie Wilbekin has been in Donovan’s doghouse. Donovan may have to start Wilbekin in this one if Murphy is indeed out and slide Boynton back to his natural shooting guard position with Mike Rosario manning the small forward slot. That is the likeliest scenario to start. Losing Murphy would be a big blow offensively as as he’s their 2nd leading scorer at 12.3 points per game and their best three point shooter at 44%.
The Seminoles are led offensively by 6-5 guard Michael Snaer who is averaging 14.1 points per game and shooting 42% from three point range and 6-8 forward Okaro White who’s averaging 13.4 points per game. The team has struggled, though, the last couple of games shooting only 37.9 percent against Minnesota and 35.4 percent against Mercer.
Despite having the three seven footers, the bulk of the Seminole rebounding comes from Snaer, White, and 6’8 forward Terrance Shannon who are averaging 5.6, 5.3, and 6.9 rebounds per game respectively. Rebounding, thus far in the season, has been a strength for the Gators as they come in ranked 9th in the country in rebound margin at 11.2 averaging 39.5 boards per game while giving up 28.3 per game.
Florida State comes in averaging 78 points per game while Florida averages 73.8 per game. The big difference comes on the defensive end where Florida State is averaging giving up 69 points per game. Meanwhile the Gators have been suffocating on the defensive end currently second in the nation in points allowed per game at 48 and ninth in field goal percentage defense at 35%. The Gators do a great job of mixing man to man and zone to complement their full court pressure game and to date they’ve been great stopping opponents from getting second chance points.
The Seminoles have struggled to find consistency in any aspect of their game thus far in the season. After the Mercer game, Hamilton lamented their struggles to this point.
“We find that energy, that intensity, that junkyard dog mentality that’s been characteristic of our team the last several of years, seemed to be missing from this team,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully this (Mercer loss) will be something we can work our way through so that we can correct all the issues that we are dealing with now, and, hopefully, get back on the winning way.”
Hamilton spoke of the the match-up with the Gators,
“Florida’s playing awfully well. I think they must be averaging beating the opponent something like 20, 25 points or something against really good competition,” said Hamilton. “That’s the challenge for us, to right the ship before they come to town.”
The Gators have played well in the early season and they have moved up to 5th in the coaches poll and 6th in the AP. Donovan was asked about if the early season success and high ranking might lead to complacency.
“I think for us it’s all about just getting really ready for the next game,” Donovan said. “I thought we did a pretty good job preparation-wise getting ready to play Marquette. Now that the focus shifts to Florida State and getting prepared and ready to play them, I think our guys understand any time you go on the road, it’s our first road test here, it’s always going to be a challenge.”
Asked about facing Leonard Hamilton and a defensive-minded team like Florida State, Donovan responded,
“Leonard’s done a terrific job. I’ve got a lot of respect for Leonard. They’re (the Seminoles) long, they’re athletic, they defend, they pressure the ball. They do a really, really good job in those areas. They make it difficult on you, make it challenging for you to score. Obviously their length and size rebounding the basketball has always been a positive, so there’s a lot to get prepared for when you play a team like them.”
Going into Tallahassee will be the first true road test for these Gators, actually playing in front of a hostile crowd.
“I’m sure it will be a great environment for our guys,” Donovan said. “For us this is a different kind of test just because we’re having to go on the road for the first time. Outside of playing on the ship and then playing in Tampa, for the most part we’ve played home. And now we’ll get our first chance to go on the road.”
And going on the road is always a difficult proposition as teams tend to play their best at home against good teams and with this being a rivalry game, the Gators can expect the Seminoles to play hard.
“There’s no question that I think Florida State will play their best game,” Donovan said. “Hopefully we’ll play our best game of the year ourselves.”
“It’s these kind of games that prepare you for your league,” Donovan added. “I’ve always enjoyed the rivalry against Florida State. Because they’re a good program and anytime you get done playing them you find out more about your team. Where you need to get better and improve. I think that our guys understand that.”
“I would hope for our guys that going on the road that we’ll handle that well for the first time.”
Tip off for tonight’s game from the Donald L. Tucker center in Tallahassee is 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on ESPNU.