The Florida Gators basketball team has started fast this season going 7-0 and is up to number five in the coaches poll. The question so far in the early season is just how good are these Gators? What was expected to be a tough early schedule has been anything but to this point as the Gators have opened with a 25.3 scoring margin which is currently fourth in the nation.
Let’s take a look at the schedule thus far.
They started the season playing Georgetown on a naval ship in Jacksonville. Of course, they were unable to finish the game, making it only to halftime before condensation on the playing court caused them to stop the game. The Gators led that one at the half 27-23 before they called the game. Georgetown was a Sweet Sixteen team last season and expected to contend once again this season in the Big East. The Gators played well in the half that they played but it’s hard to get a true indication because much of what the Gators have been able to do this season has been done through halftime adjustments.
Wisconsin, another tournament team from last season, and an annual contender in the Big Ten came to Gainesville on November 14th expecting a tough match-up with the Gators. What they got was a Florida team that shot 75% from the field in the first half en route to a relatively easy 74-56 Gator win.
The Badgers are a traditionally strong defensive team and it was apparent from the start their plan was to stop the entry pass to big man Patric Young. While their strategy was successful at stopping Young, 6-10 forward Erik Murphy stepped up with the best scoring game of his career going 10-10 from the field finishing with 24 points. The Gators played well against a preseason top twenty five team and their balanced scoring and tough defense proved them to be one of the better teams in the country.
Middle Tennessee State is another team on the Gator’s schedule that is expected to compete for their conference title and possibly make it into the national rankings. Last season they were the cream of the Sunbelt Conference before a surprising loss in the conference tournament knocked them out of a chance at the Big Dance. This season they seek retribution and are the odds of favorite to win the conference and make a tournament run.
They came to Tampa to take on the Gators and actually gave them a run for their money down only 29-26 at the half after holding the Gators to only 39% shooting. In the second half, however, the Gators took control with their inside game and ran away with the game 66-45. Early on the Blue Raiders zone defense was giving the Gators fits forcing the Gators to settle for perimeter shots which weren’t falling for the Gators. At halftime Donovan shifted the offensive focus to pushing the ball inside to Young which forced the Blue Raider zone to sag, getting the Gators to the free throw line and opening up the perimeter shooting.
The Blue Raiders were the Gators first strong defensive struggle of the season and they showed good resolve fighting through adversity and poor shooting to win going away.
Savannah State, a MEAC team who was never a threat to beat the Gators, did play Gator opponents Middle Tennessee State and UCF very tough losing close games to both. This game was another game where the Gators struggled offensively but still fought through on the defensive end to keep the Tigers from ever getting close, holding them to a season low 40 points.
Central Florida is a Conference USA team that finished 22-11 last year and expected to be one of the better league teams this season behind preseason player of the year Keith Clanton and some good young players. They also, not coincidentally, upset the Gators in last season’s match-up.
This season they posed more problems for the Gators. After falling behind at the half by 18 points, they fought back to open the second half trimming the lead to 7 points and putting a scare into the Gators. The problem for Florida has been the one major, glaring issue throughout the season: turnovers. Florida’s assist to turnover ratio is barely positive with 96 assists and 87 turnovers on the season and Mike Rosario’s carelessness with the ball in this one got him benched for most of the second half.
But, as has been the case all season, they’re balanced scoring and pressure defense allowed the Gators to overcome their mistakes and take back control of the game eventually cruising to a 79-66 victory. UCF to this point is the only team to score over 60 points on the Gators and along with Wisconsin the only teams to score over 50 points.
Marquette came into the O’Dome on November looking for retribution for their Sweet Sixteen loss to the Gators last year. Like Wisconsin, what they got was a beat down losing to a Gator team clicking on all cylinders 82-49. After the game Billy Donovan proclaimed that the Gators were not thirty points better than Marquette. They were on this night, however, as Patric Young responded to Donovan’s pregame benching by getting a double-double with ten points, ten rebounds, three assists, and three monster blocks. Once again the Gators looked overwhelming against a team that was expected to provide more of a test.
Finally, in their first true road test of the season, the Gators traveled to Tallahassee to take on last season’s ACC champion Florida State. In what was expected to be a tough match-up for the Gators playing on the road for the first time against their biggest rival, the Gators turned up the intensity and out-physicalled the taller Seminoles and once again made it look easy defeating them 72-47. Late in the game Dick Vitale tweeted that the Gators were the best team in the SEC and could compete for an NCAA top seed.
How good are these Gators? Still too early to tell. Their three toughest match-ups, Wisconsin, Marquette, and Florida State all lost star players from last season but they still returned the majority of their lineups and are expected to compete in their respective conferences this season. They will all likely be tourney teams again this season as well. Certainly, Florida’s schedule has been one of the tougher ones of the early season and they are starting to turn some heads nationally with their margins of victory against good competition.
The tough schedule amps up considerably this Saturday as the 5th ranked Gators travel to Tucson to take on the 8th ranked Wildcats (7-0), the first top ten match-up of the season for both squads. To this point the Gators have taken on a lot of deliberate offensive teams whom the Gators have been able to disrupt with athletic guys like Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Kenny Boynton. The Wildcats pose different problems for the Gators as the Wildcats are currently ranked sixth in the nation in scoring averaging 85.2 points per game.
Arizona has size in the paint, athleticism at the wing, and great shooting at the guard slots. They’re certainly the most balanced scoring team the Gators have faced to this point and are equally effective in the half-court or on the break. While Florida’s record to this point may be questionable to some, there will be no question after this game. We will see just how good the Gators are or where they need work. The biggest questions will be how effective the Gator defense, which is second in the nation in scoring average at 48.5, will be against one of the premier offenses in the country, how effective Patric Young, Erik Murphy, and Will Yeguete can be against a tall, athletic front-court like the Wildcats possess, and if the Gators guards can do a better job of taking care of the basketball than they have all season.
So the jury is still out on just how good these Gators actually are, but by this time next week we should have a pretty good idea as we approach the new year and the start of the conference schedule.