Fresh off a big 22 point road victory against LSU on Saturday, the #10 ranked Florida Gators travel to College Station tonight to take on conference newcomer the Texas A&M Aggies. The Gators come in 12-2 on the season and 2-0 in the SEC while the Aggies are 12-3 overall and 2-0 in the SEC also. The Aggies are somewhat of an enigma after beating mighty Kentucky at Rupp Arena 83-71 on Saturday behind shooting guard Elton Turner’s 40 points yet losing to small school Southern University 53-51 earlier in the season. Not many may have given A&M a shot to beat UK in Lexington but rest assured the huge victory has gotten the Gators attention.
“A team (A&M) that’s playing very, very good basketball,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “A team that’s had some really good, quality wins. Again, I think going on the road there Thursday will be, without question, a great challenge.”
Although A&M is a newcomer to the SEC this season, they did meet last season in the Orange Bowl Classic as the Gators walked out with a 84-64 victory. This season’s teams are markedly different, though, as A&M lost a number of key contributors from last season as did the Gators. The Aggies come in with a little swagger fresh off that huge road victory over UK with Turner hitting for 40 on 14-19 from the field and 6-10 from three point range. Guard Fabyon Harris scored 14 and forward Kourney Robertson chipped in 10, the only other double digit scorers for the Aggies. The Gators are aware of Turner’s scoring ability.
“He’s a really good player,” said Donovan. “He scored twenty against us last year. He can do it in a lot of different ways.” “The thing that was impressive to me, is less than half of his number of his shots didn’t even equal the amount of points he scored. He scored 40 points on 19 shots. To me that’s the sign of a very, very efficient offensive player.”
It’s not just Turner, however, that the Gators are focusing on. With A&M upsetting Kentucky at Rupp, it reinforces the idea that every league game is a battle and they have to come prepared each and every day. You can’t take any team for granted.
“I think it’s league,” Donovan said. “I don’t think that really has anything to do with anything. I think our guys understand in this league that regardless of who you’re playing against home or on the road it’s always going to be a challenge. Certainly, I think anytime you win a game on the road in this league or any league for that matter it’s always a positive.” “I think our guys understand each and every game, when we play and whoever we play, you’re always going to be in difficult battles and challenges because I think league play just in general is just that difficult.”
You can count Patric Young as one who was impressed by the upset but not surprised.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Young said. “I’m surprised the guy went for forty against Kentucky. I wouldn’t think anyone could do that at Rupp Arena. It just shows that you got to go out there and compete every single night, that no game is given to you. We’ve got to go out there and stick to our scouting and try to win the best we can.” “It (the win over UK) just shows us that we can’t come in there underestimating them. Kentucky, even though they’re not playing as great as everyone predicted, they’re still a very talented team and we’re just going to have to be ready for Texas A&M because they can win games. They’re just as capable of winning the league as we are as anyone else.”
The Gators come into the game with a patchwork lineup, likely their eleventh different starting lineup of the season, due to injuries to Casey Prather, Mike Rosario, Will Yeguete, and Erik Murphy. Prather is definitely out for this game with a high ankle sprain and is expected to remain out for 10-14 days according to Donovan.
“I don’t think it’s a real severe high ankle sprain,” according to Donovan. “Those things can take obviously a long time to heal. I think our best guess right now is probably ten to fourteen. We’ll see how he progresses through treatment. But I would say this week he’s definitely out.”
Rosario (ankle), Yeguete (tendinitis), and Murphy (broken ribs) are cleared to play but will likely be game-time decisions depending on if they feel they can be effective or not. Prather’s injury hurts as he had just started to get back into playing shape after missing almost a month at the start of the season due to a concussion.
“I think he was really playing well, I really do,” according to Donovan, adding, “it’s unfortunate, he’s had to deal with some different things throughout the course of his career. But thank God it’s not a severe high ankle sprain where your out from a month to six weeks.” “We’ll miss him because he’s a versatile player and he’s played well for us so far.”
With Prather out, freshman Michael Frazier will see extended playing time in his stead. Frazier has been coming on of late and has been effective in his limited time on the floor. Prather is an athletic and versatile player but Frazier won’t need to try and do all the things he does, he simply will need to play his game.
“We’re going to need him to come provide energy, defense, good decisions, just be able to run our offense the same,” Patric Young said. “Not tell him to be as athletic and do the things that Casey does but it’s to go out there and play within himself and just do whatever coach Donovan has asked him to do.”
Rosario sat out the LSU game with an ankle injury and there’s a chance he could sit this one out as well. Rosario has been playing his best basketball since arriving in Gainesville, finally coming out of Donovan’s doghouse and getting significant playing time as a starter at shooting guard or small forward depending upon the matchup. If he does sit out, it will be another big blow for the Gators offensively. As they have all season, however, the Gators will need to continue have guys step up in their place.
“We come in knowing adversity’s going to hit, guys are going to get hurt,” said Young. “It just sucks that it has to be Casey right now and Mike.” “We’re going to miss those guys, but we’re going to adjust and we’re going to prepare and go out with what we have.”
If Rosario sits again, we’ll likely see freshman Dillon Graham who got extended playing time against LSU in Rosario’s stead, and quite possibly Braxton Ogbueze or DeVon Walker, who have yet to see much playing time other than in mop-up duty.
“I think playing Dillon, the one thing I respect about Dillon is his ability to pass the ball,” Donovan said. “I think, for him, against a team like LSU at home that was creating about 12 steals a game forcing 19 turnovers, with Rosario being out I just felt like in that game in terms of a handling and passing standpoint we needed some of that. But it could be totally different against A&M. It’s not necessarily him, it could be Braxton, it could be DeVon Walker. It depends as we get deeper into A&M to figure those things out.”
The Gators haven’t missed a beat this season in spite of the multitude of injuries and suspensions they’ve dealt with, including Erik Murphy’s broken ribs and Scottie Wilbekin’s broken finger which both are still playing with. No matter who’s been in the lineup there’s been no dropoff in performance. That may be the most amazing thing about the 12-2 start for the Gators.
The Gators are currently ranked third in the country in scoring defense giving up on 52 points per game and second in scoring margin at 21.6 per game. A&M counters with some tough defense of their own giving up only 59.4 points per game on average. The Aggies come in leading the SEC in three point field goal percentage at 38.% led by Elston Turner who’s shooting 44.2% from outside the arc, which is best in the conference. Turner is second in the SEC in total number of made three point shots with 42. The Gators are a close second to A&M in the SEC in three point field goal percentage at 37.4% and are led by Erik Murphy who is shooting 44 percent. Kenny Boynton is sixth in the conference at 35.5% and 3rd in made three pointers with 33.
Turner is currently the SEC’s third leading scorer at 17.1 points per game and the Aggies have a couple of good rebounders in Ray Turner and Kourtney Robertson who average a combined 13 rebounds per game. The Gators counter with a balanced scoring attack with four players averaging in double figures led by Kenny Boynton’s 13.9 ppg average. Rosario and Murphy are close behind at 12.3 and 12.0 per game respectively while center Patric Young averages 11.1 per game. The Gators have balance on the boards as well with a lot of guys who can rebound and they are currently fourteenth in the nation in rebounding margin at plus 8.8 rebounds per game.
After the tough road contest versus A&M, the Gators turn around and face the other conference newcomer 17th ranked Missouri on Saturday afternoon in the O’Connell Center. Tonight’s game from the Reed Arena in College Station, Texas tips off at 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on ESPN2.