The Gators are off to a great start this season at 14-2 and 4-0 in the SEC. As a result, they moved up to # 8 in the AP poll this week. We’ve already talked about just how surprisingly good the Gators offense has been this season. Today we discuss the biggest reason for the Gators great start: the Gator defense.
Make no mistake about it, while the Gators have played exceptionally well offensively to start this season, it’s the Gator defense that is the engine driving this team’s success.
These guys don’t just play defense, they play nasty defense.
Insert adjective here defense.
How good is the Gator defense? They’re third in the nation in scoring defense averaging only 51.7 ppg given up and have been there all season long against as difficult and varied a pre-conference schedule as they’ve had under Billy Donovan.
Not convinced? Consider that they’ve held eight of their fourteen opponents to under 50 points and ten to under 60 with no team scoring 70 or above. That’s pretty good.
They held Big Ten leader Wisconsin to 56 points, the same team that just knocked off Indiana when they were ranked number two. Wisconsin is 13-2 4-0 in the Big Ten but never even appeared to be in the game against Florida.
They held Texas A&M leading scorer Elston Turner, who scored 40 against Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the previous game, to only four points on 1-10 shooting. They held Missouri point guard Phil Pressey, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, to only two points and 10 turnovers.
To say the Gators are playing great defense would be a huge understatement.
They are currently fifth in the nation in field goal percentage defense giving up only 36.1% shooting. They will win a ton of games playing that kind of defense. Head coach Billy Donovan is impressed.
” (They understand) how we have to guard and how we have to play defensively and what we need to do to try to take away any team’s strengths,” Donovan explained. “What they are going to look to do or try to exploit and take advantage of. I think our guys have done a good job at this point in time with preparation, scouting, personnel, understanding what teams are going to try to do.”
It starts with defensive superstar Scottie Wilbekin who’s tall and athletic with quick feet and quick hands but certainly doesn’t end there. He has the speed and quickness to get through and around screens and get back on the ball quickly preventing drives to the lane. He has quick hands reminiscent of Corey Brewer in his ability to force turnovers by swatting balls without fouling.
“I think he’s definitely in that upper category of good defenders,” Donovan said, adding, “He has like a Hamilton or a Corey Brewer, he’s got that mentality that he really takes on challenges to defend and he’s made our defense a lot better because he has really good feet and he can move his feet and keep people in front.”
” He’s a physical guard where he’s a hard guy to screen. If he does get screened, he’s got a great ability to get around off contact and get back on the ball.”
His tunnel vision-like focus on playing tough defense has rubbed off on his teammates and made everyone around him better for it.
“For Scottie, he’s always hung his hat on being a great defender,” according to Donovan. “It’s always been important to him. Because our defense has gotten better and he has a lot to do with that, as a point guard, it’s probably changed our mentality a little bit in going out there and defending the way we have. It certainly starts with your point guard because he’s certainly picking the ball up on the press. He’s out there on the top and he can set the stage. He’s a guy that, it’s important to him personally. I don’t need to motivate him to play defense. It’s important to him.”
Another guy who is very active on the defensive end that does a lot of the little things that might not show up on the stat sheet but certainly impacts the game for the Gators is Will Yeguete. A long defender with great feet and quick hands, Yeguete is very disruptive in the post for opposing teams. Any time the ball gets in the paint area he’s able to slide in on a double team creating loose balls, blocked or altered shots, and he is able to slip back off the double back onto his man to take away outside scoring opportunities. He’s also good at backside defense and backside rebounding reducing second chance opportunities for opponents. Like Wilbekin, he prides himself on his defense and doing the little things that create opportunities for the Gators.
“I describe him as a guy that is a rare breed because he really values and takes pride in doing a lot of the dirty work things,” Donovan said after the Missouri game. “He’s a great defender, he’s a great rebounder, he’s a terrific loose ball guy, he puts his body in plays. Those guys are hard to find.”
One guy who has really “gotten” Donovan’s emphasis on defense is Mike Rosario. Coming in to Florida as a transfer from Rutgers, Rosario was known as an offensive sharpshooter and frequent ad-libber who was careless with the basketball. As such, Rosario’s defensive skills left a lot to be desired and is one reason he saw minimal playing time last season his first eligible season with the Gators. Donovan knew that he was a liability on the defensive end for the Gators and that alone made it a difficult decision on whether to play him or not.
This season he appears to have bought into Donovan’s vision of tough team defense which requires all five players on the floor to play consistent, focused defense for the entirety of possessions something Rosario had never had to do prior to coming to Florida. As a result, he’s getting more turnovers and helping to create fast break opportunities for himself and his teammates.
“I think he has made more of a commitment defensively and helping us get better because I thought last year he was really a weak defender and wasn’t really committed to or saw the value in it,” Donovan said. “As time has gone on I think he has done that, but Mike has been much more consistent.”
In the post, Patric Young has improved dramatically last season to this. It’s been well documented that he had trouble playing physically in past seasons the way his size would dictate. He was often too passive, and needed to improve his consistency, especially on defense. Coming in to the season Donovan challenged him to be more physical in the lane and on the boards and he has certainly done that. Ever since Donovan benched Young for the start of the Marquette game due to inconsistent practice effort, Young has responded by playing his best, most physical, and most consistent basketball of his career. His biggest problem in seasons past was that, while he is a muscular specimen, he lacked the proper conditioning to play consistently up and down the floor for forty minutes at this level.
“I think one thing that happens to all players when they are freshmen is when they are freshmen and when they go from their freshman year to their sophomore year and their role changes,” Donovan said. “I don’t think he ever realized how hard it was going to be going from his freshman year to his sophomore year. Last year there were moments where he would disappear. He looked exhausted, he looked tired, and he couldn’t run. I think it was overwhelming to him, everything – preparation, scouting, having physical pain, rebounding, running the floor, and all of this stuff, in a lot of ways, was overwhelming to him. He, at times, got frustrated. He disappeared. He almost looked exhausted and drained because that’s what ends up happening.”
“But because he has had one more year under his belt, he has a better understanding now and how to deal with that.”
“From a maturity standpoint and that process, once you are on offense, regardless of what happens, you made a mistake, you do something wrong, you miss a shot, you miss free throws, the next part of the process is run back on defense and can you put that behind you and really focus in on what your job and responsibility is right now. He has worked really hard to get better in that area.”
Overall, there has been a strong commitment from the entire lineup to play sound, tough, unified defense possession to posssession. The ability to play through the entire shot clock, to press effectively, to get stops and turnovers serve to feed the Gators fast break and help them to create extra possessions and easy baskets. Donovan knew before the season that this team had a chance to be good defensively but that was surely not a certainty.
“I thought we had a chance to be a really, really good defensive team,” he said. “It’s an every day commitment to guard, in my opinion. I thought we had talented defenders and we could be a good defensive team if we get committed to it. I think our guys are taking pride in it. I think that they can see what happens when you’re committed to it. We’ve really been able to get better in that area.”
So while the Gator offense has certainly played way better than anybody thought coming in to the season, it is certainly the Gators defensive prowess that has made this team go and will be the key to their success and how far they actually go.