The Florida Gators basketball team is off to a fantastic start this season at 7-0 and are currently ranked 5th in the nation. A seemingly difficult schedule to start the season has been anything but thus far as the Gators have opened with a 25 points per game average margin of victory. However, the schedule amps up considerably on Saturday as the Gators travel to Tucson, Arizona to take on the 7-0 and 8th ranked Arizona Wildcats.
The Gators have been impressive in early season action beating three tournament teams from last season Wisconsin, Marquette, and Florida State by double digit margins. The key for the Gators thus far has been their suffocating defense and their balanced scoring. Defensively they are second in the nation in scoring defense allowing only 48.3 points per game. Only one of their opponents (UCF) have scored more than 60 points and only two (UCF and Wisconsin) have scored more than 50 points. They transition well from their press to zone switching periodically to man. They are very active with their legs and hands and create disruption in offensive flow creating steals and rebounds which jump starts their fast break.
“Our defensive coverage in terms of shrinking the floor, providing a little bit more help, challenging shots, using our hands has been good,” said head coach Billy Donovan. “I think the other thing that’s been very effective for us has been the ability to change defenses. We’ve been able to press to man, press to zone, keep teams off balance. We’ve been able to, in our zone and in our man with a veteran group, change schemes, (change) coverages, guard certain situations a different way. All those things have added up to us being improved.”
The defense starts with three veteran players who have stepped up their game considerably in Patric Young, Erik Murphy, and Kenny Boynton. Donovan challenged Young in the off-season to become a more physical presence in the post, to play the way a guy his size would be expected to play. He has responded well protecting the basket forcing post players into difficult shots and producing blocks where he has 16 so far early in the season. Erik Murphy, who previously was more of a catch and shoot perimeter player on the wing has been working hard in the post as a complement to Young, rebounding and being disruptive with his long 6-10 frame.
“Erik Murphy’s a smart defender,” Donovan said. “Kenny Boynton’s a proven defender for three years here. I think our basketball team being anchored in the middle with Patric Young who’s gotten better defensively. There has been more of an emphasis and focus therefor us.”
Three other players have increased their playing time, increased their roles, and increased their level of play significantly for the Gators and that has had a significant effect defensively for this team.
“I think, one, Scottie Wilbekin being in a different role than a year ago,” Donovan said. “Erving Walker had a tremendous career here. Really had a phenomenal career for a guy that is 5’8. Scottie, certainly a different kind of player. A longer, more athletic (type of player). Terrific defender, played a different role last year than this year. I think looking at the end our our season the last three or four games going into the SEC tournament losing Will Yeguete who was clearly one of our better defenders and a guy that really, in the press, was effective for us. Will Yeguete’s injury gives Casy Prather last year an opportunity to kind of come into his own. Have some success late in the season. So now you’ve got three players in Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather that are terrific defenders playing more minutes.”
Offensively, the Gators have four players averaging in double figures with leading scorer Kenny Boynton averaging 14.4 points per game, Erik Murphy 11.9, Mike Rosario 11.4, and Patric Young 10.3. Additionally, four other players average over points per game Scottie Wilbekin at 7.6, Will Yeguete 7.3, Casey Prather 7.0, and freshman Michael Frazier at 6.6. With so many scorers from every position on the floor the Gators are extremely tough to defend.
The last few seasons it seems as the Gators lack of depth has left them reliant on just a few players to provide the bulk of the scoring. Finally, that is not the case anymore as Donovan has loaded up on shooters that can hit shots anywhere at any given time. This is extremely important as the streaky nature of shooters can leave a team vulnerable and the strive for offensive balance is by design.
“You want to be able to have, I would love, between four and six players every game in double figures,” Donovan said. “Because I think when you get into a situation where you have one or two guys that do all your scoring, defenses can set up different strategies to try to take two guys out. I think we have the capability on a given night, anybody can score twenty points. Going back to the Florida State game Kenny Boynton struggled shooting the basketball, Patric Young had a tough time getting post touches, Erik Murphy’s battling an injury, and Mike Rosario, a guy who’s not been shooting the ball well from the three point line, gives us nine points in the first half, kind of carries us offensively.”
While the Gator defense has been suffocating this season to say the least, they’ve played teams that tend to like to play slow half-court games which plays into the Gators disruptive defensive style.
“The one thing I would say in looking at our season so far defensively,” according to Donovan. “We’ve played against some pattern teams, very organized teams. Florida State was a very organized team, Wisconsin very organized, Marquette very organized coming down on offense. So we’ve kind of had an understanding of how to disrupt. UCF more of a concept team, utilizing individual player talents, putting you in difficult situations, putting you in rotations And that was a game in the second half we did not do a great job in that second half at UCF, gave up a lot of three points shots eight from the three point line in the second half.
The Wildcats present a significantly different team than most of the others they’ve played to this point. They’ve got size in the post, good perimeter shooting, and are both long and athletic. They will certainly be the best match-up man-for-man the Gators have faced this season. The Wildcats are led offensively by 6-3 guard Nick Johnson who’s averaging 13.6 points per game, guard Mark Lyons at 13.4 and forward Soloman Hill with 12.3.
One area the Gators have had a significant advantage this season is on the boards where they are currently 13th in the nation in rebounding margin averaging 38.7 boards per game while giving up only 28. The Gator will meet their match in this one, however, as the Wildcats are currently 10th in the nation averaging 38 rebounds per game and giving up only 26.4. In the Gators last game, the Seminoles matched up well size-wise with the Gators but the Gators athleticism was too much for them on the boards. The Wildcats, on the other hand, have length in the post with 7-0 center Kaleb Tarczewski and athleticism with 6-7 forward Soloman Hill and this match-up will be interesting to watch.
The Wildcats, much like the Gators, are very active defensively averaging 8.9 steals per game, the most since head coach Sean Miller took over the program. The Gators counter with an 8.1 steals per game average another area where the two teams are comparable.
Finally, the one area the Gators have really struggled this season is in the assist to turnover ratio, or more specifically, in turnovers. They’ve finished in double digit turnovers in almost every game this season and Donovan is placing special emphasis on this area trying to get them to play more in control.
“One area offensively we’ve got to get better is assist to turnover ratio,: Donovan said. “We are in the positive, but we’ve always been one of the better teams in this league assist to turnover, number of assists. Just need to get better in that area.”
Interestingly, the Wildcats are struggling in this area as well with an assist to turnover ratio which is almost identical to the Gators at 1.11 to the Gators 1.10. It will be an interesting match-up in Tucson on Saturday night between two top ten basketball teams who mirror each other.
Tip off from the McKale Center is 10 pm eastern time and will be broadcast live on ESPN.