The Florida Gators basketball team is off to a quick start at 12-2 and 2-0 in the SEC. There are a number of factors which have gone into this quick start, but here we list the top 5 reasons to be impressed.
#5 BALANCED OFFENSE
With four players averaging in double figures, the Gators are extremely hard to defend. Kenny Boynton averages 13.8 ppg, Mike Rosario is averaging 12.3 ppg, Erik Murphy 12.0, and center Patric Young 11.1. Throw in guard Scottie Wilbekin, who averages 8.1 ppg, and reserves Casey Prather at 6.8 ppg and Michael Frazier at 6.1 ppg and you have seven guys who can score at any time.
The Gators like to run an inside-outside offense forcing the ball into the paint and then kicking out to the perimeter. Center Patric Young and power forward Erik Murphy are able to score and command double teams down in the post. Murphy, and guards Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Scottie Wilbekin are all very good perimeter shooters. The objective is to get the ball inside and score if he’s singled up and pass to open shooters if they double down.
With Bradley Beal leaving for the NBA and Erving Walker graduated, the Gators lost over 60% of their perimeter shooting from a year ago. Donovan made it clear in the offseason that they would need more of an inside presence this season if they were to be successful. Young worked on his post moves in the offseason and has shown much improvement. Murphy worked at being more of a post presence rather than just a pick and pop or catch and shoot three point specialist. The improvement of these two has really opened up the offense. Offenses have to double anytime the ball goes into the post or the Gators can get easy scores as shown by Young’s 61% field goal percentage and Murphy’s 54.1%.
#4 THREE POINT SHOOTING
After last season, the Gators lost over 60% of their perimeter shooting which they relied heavily on last season because they lacked a strong post presence. Coming into this season, Donovan was concerned that there would be a large dropoff in three point shooting percentage due to the loss of Walker and Beal. To this point, however, Donovan has to be pleasantly surprised. To date the Gators are second in the conference in three point field goal percentage at 37.4% and first in the number of made three pointers with 114. While the number per game has dropped from 9.6 to 8.1 that drop can be accounted for by the increase in post shooting this season.
Despite his increased role in the post, Erik Murphy has seen no dropoff in his three point shooting percentage as he’s currently hitting 43.6% which would be second in the league if he had enough attempts to qualify. Kenny Boynton who has seen a dropoff from his 110 made three pointers and 40.7% due to his much publicized shooting slump, is still 6th in the league in 3 point percentage at 35.5% and is still on pace to make 90+ for the season. Freshman reserve guard Michael Frazier has been a nice addition to the lineup shooting 43% from three and Rosario and Wilbekin have really stepped up their games as well from outside the arc.
With an improved inside game and perimeter shooting with little dropoff the Gators are even tougher to defend than the last two seasons where they made consecutive Elite Eight appearances.
Last season one of the bigger issues for the Gators was they lacked a strong inside presence in the post. Patric Young, as a sophomore, was in his first full season as a starter and was still learning how to play the way his size dictates. Although he is an Adonis in physique with great height at 6-9 and size at 250, he tended to play passively which is counter-intuitive to his appearance. As a result, the Gators struggled to not only score in the post but even more to get rebounds. The Gators finished last season with only a +2.8 rpg margin. For a team that boasts a player like Young and a 6-10 power forward in Erik Murphy, that was just not getting the job done.
This past offseason, Donovan challenged both Patric Young and Erik Murphy to be more involved in the post. He pushed Young to be more physical blocking out and going up and taking balls away. With Murphy the push was to simply get him more involved in the paint. Previously, he was used more as a wing perimeter player taking three point shots when teams doubled other players. This season Donovan challenged Murphy to play more in the paint and underneath the basket, blocking shots and rebounding. Both guys have responded effectively. Murphy has doubled his rebounds per game from last season and Young, while on a similar pace as last season, is actually playing much more physical in the post.
Another guy who has really stepped up this season is small forward Will Yeguete. A very active, athletic wing player, Yeguete is very disruptive defensively and hits the boards with authority. With him averaging 6.6 rpg, Young averaging 6.4 rpg, and Murphy at 4.5 the Gators are currently third in the league and tied for 19th nationally with an 8.6 rpg margin.
#2 PLAYING THROUGH INJURIES
If there’s one thing about the Gators 12-2 record that impresses me the most, it’d have to be their ability to play through injuries and lineup changes. This team has had ten different starting lineups in fourteen games as various players have sat due to a variety of injuries and suspensions. The Gators opened the season and played the first few games without starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin who was suspended for still undisclosed violations of team rules. They were also without reserve forward Casey Prather due to a concussion suffered in practice right before the start of the regular season.
Since then, the Gators have dealt with injuries to Murphy (shoulder and now bruised ribs), Wilbekin (broken finger), Boynton (ankle), Yeguete (tendonitis and possibly worse in the knee), Rosario (ankle), and now Prather again (high ankle sprain vs. LSU). In spite of all these lineup issues, the Gators have not missed a beat. Like football coach Will Muschamp likes to say “man down, man up” and that’s just how the basketball team has responded. Whoever is in the lineup has to pick up the pieces and move forward. There has been no dropoff offensively or defensively regardless of which lineup Donovan puts on the floor.
As a result, the Gators are currently fourth in the nation in scoring margin at 20.6 per game. Amazingly, it’s not like they’ve played patsies. for the most part they’ve played a difficult schedule and haven’t missed a beat despite all the injuries.
#1 SOUND DEFENSE
Absolutely, and by a wide margin, the most impressive part of the Gators huge start to the season and the catalyst for their strong margin of victories has been the strong defense this team has played. They are currently number four in the country in scoring defense giving up only 52.7 ppg and have been in the top four all season. Only four teams have scored more than 60 on the Gators (UCF, Arizona, K State, and Air Force) and NONE have scored more than 70. That’s actually an amazing stat when you think about it. They’ve played a variety of offensive teams this season from big scorers to balanced scorers, set offenses to fast break offenses, big teams and small teams yet nobody has been able to break down this defense effectively except for K State who played the Gator zone to perfection.
Billy Donovan has preached strong, sound defense since he arrived in Gainesville, yet his teams haven’t always shown a propensity to be consistently effective at it. This team certainly has. The offense has been highly streaky and often has started games slowly, but it has been the Gators defensive effectiveness that has kept them in games as they waited for the offense to get into rhythm.
The last game against LSU was a good example. The Gators were only shooting 30% from the field and had only scored 19 points with four minutes left in the first half. But the defense held LSU to only 27% shooting and 19 points at that point. LSU plays an up-tempo style of play and could have realistically taken a big lead at home if the Gator defense hadn’t played so effectively, rebounding, getting back in transition, and forcing LSU to take longer possessions than they were comfortable with. As a result, the Gators kept the game close until the offense could find their rhythm which they did going on a 10-1 run to close the first half and a 32-5 run between the first and second halves to take a commanding lead and finish with a 22 point victory.
The Gators have played much better than expected to start the season and Donovan has to be pleased with a 12-2 record at this point as they head into the meat of their SEC schedule. Realistically, if this team can get healthy and stay healthy and continue their run of great defense they have a good shot to exceed the results of the last two seasons and make a Final Four run. Of course, they have a tough conference schedule to get through, but with a young Kentucky team not playing at the level of the past few the Gators are likely the class of the SEC and should be odds on favorite to win the SEC this season.