Having played one of the most “varied” schedules in the nation to open the season, for lack of a better term, the Florida Gators basketball team feels like they’ve seen it all.
The Gators have played teams from the Big East, the ACC, Big12, PAC 12, Big Ten, and Conference USA, among others. They’ve played big road games, neutral court games, and home away from home games. They’ve played a number of different styles and schemes. Hopefully, the variety in scheduling will pay off for the Gators as they begin their conference schedule tonight against the Georgia Bulldogs.
Billy Donovan certainly hopes it will pay off for his team.
“I think we’ve gone against a lot of different styles,” Donovan said. “I think we’ve played in a lot of different venues. We’ve had to travel quite a bit. We’ve played in some hostile environments. We’ve played at neutral sites. So I think this is all a work in progress.”
They’ve also played with a number of different lineups due to injuries and suspensions. And they haven’t seemed to miss a beat.
“For us, the first part of the year, we didn’t have a full complement of players,” said Donovan. “With Scottie and Casey being out. Then we lose Murphy with the hip pointer, doesn’t really play the second half against Marquette or much against Florida State. Patrick being out of the starting lineup. Murphy getting hurt again, Scottie breaking a finger. So really the first twelve games we’ve had a couple of games where we’ve had a full complement of players.”
The crucible that is playing a difficult early season schedule and having key players in and out of the lineup, helps to forge a better, stronger team. You learn a lot about yourself as a player and a coach learns a lot about his team.
“I think the one thing for me is just, through all these experiences that we’re going through, where can we get better?” Donovan queried.
The best part, however, of this difficult early season scheduling is the break that was scheduled the last month. After playing eight games the first full month of the season, if you include the half they played against Georgetown, the Gators only played five the last month. This has given them a chance to not only rest and heal but practice and get better individually and as a team.
“What happens is when you play a schedule like we’ve played up to this point in time,” Donovan said. “Some of those things you don’t do well get really exposed. We’ve had a chance to really work on them going into the Air Force game and then this last week having eight days.”
So here they are on the verge of starting the grind that is the SEC schedule, once again without a key player in power forward Erik Murphy who is out with bruised ribs, and Donovan is pleased with what he sees. They’ve opened 10-2, losing a tight one at Arizona and a not so tight one at Kansas State, but otherwise they have dominated their opponents. Donovan is aware there is plenty of room for improvement but he liked what he saw in their last game Sunday night on the road at Ivy League foe Yale.
“This was a game where I thought our guys, having eight days off, we got better,” according to Donovan. “We got better moving the ball, passing the ball. I thought our press, which we spent a lot of time working on these past eight days was effective in the game yesterday. ”
He added, “It was good to see us get back to getting 19 assists in a game because I think when we make the game easier for each other we’re a lot more difficult to guard.”
Will it carry over against a rival who started the season 2-7 before winning their last four? The Gators sure hope so. Georgia has been somewhat of an enigma this season starting 2-7 losing to Youngstown State but playing #11 UCLA tight losing by four 60-56.
Georgia is led by sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who is averaging 17.5 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. No one else on the roster is averaging in double figures with 6-8 forward Nemanja Djurisic averaging 8.5 points per game being the second leading scorer.
the 6-7 Bulldogs on paper appear to be no threat to the 10th ranked Gators especially at home as the Gators have won the last nine games in the series played in Gainesville. Georgia is 306th in the nation in scoring averaging a paltry 60.6 points per game while the Gators come in averaging 73.3 ppg. Defensively, is where the Gators really excel, however, as they are currently ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense giving up only 52.7 ppg. The Gators have also been very effective on the boards where they are tied for 19th in the nation in rebounding margin with a plus 8.6 margin.
Regardless, the Gators, and especially their fans, are very happy that soon to be the all time leading scorer at Florida, Kenny Boynton, appeared to finally break out a six game long shooting slump where he shot 29% from three point range. He finished the Yale game with a career high 28 points on 8-10 shooting from three point range.
A lot had been written and analyzed about the slump, but rather than panic, Boynton and Donovan sat down and analyzed, not his shooting motion or mechanics, but his shot selection. Donovan felt it was his decision making and shot selection that was hurting Boynton.
“It wasn’t necessarily bad shots,” Donovan said. “It was the decision’s he was making when he was shooting the ball. There’s a guy running at him at 6-6, flying through the air at him and he’s trying to get it off over top of the guy instead of going around him and getting somebody else a shot. When that happens, guys then have a tendency to sit there and say, OK, we’ve got to close out a little bit shorter and contain him on the dribble. That then creates space for him to shoot the ball over the top.”
Another key player who seemed to pick up his contributions on Sunday was forward Will Yeguete who filled in at power forward in Erik Murphy’s absence. Yeguete is an athletic small forward who the Gators had relied on earlier in the season for his disruptive, high energy play as well as his ability to get second chance points cleaning up the boards. Over the last few games prior to Yale, his game had slowed a little bit and his contributions slowed with it. Sunday, he was back to the old Will.
“I think getting Will Yeguete back where he played yesterday with the level of intensity and passion, did the things that he’s capable of doing really helped our team.”
With Murph sitting out this game also with the bruised ribs, Yeguete will once again be relied upon to step up his level of play and contribution. The Gators balanced scoring attack with five players averaging in double figures and their stifling style of defense will likely be too much for the young Georgia Bulldog squad to handle, but don’t count them out just yet. They did beat the Gators last season in Athens and have seemed to play a little better against the better teams.
With Kentucky opening an unusual 9-4 and unranked the Gators begin league play as the odd’s on favorite to win the league title. But don’t think that it’s a burden to Billy Donovan or his players.
“I don’t thing our guys worry about that,” Donovan said. “I think we’ve got an older group of guys who understand that any given night anything can happen. For me that really doesn’t make a difference. I don’t think our guys feel any extra burden or pressure because we are picked to win the league.”
The Gators pursuit of the SEC regular season title begins tonight in the O’Connell Center. Tipoff is 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on CSS/Cox Sports or can be seen on ESPN3.
Follow us on Twitter @HailFloridaHail for live tweets and in-game updates and check us out for post-game coverage.