Fresh off their first conference loss of the season, a tough 80-69 road blowout at Arkansas, the Florida Gators (18-3, 8-1) seek to regroup today at the O’Connell Center as they take on Mississippi State (7-14, 2-7).
They will have to regroup without defensive specialist Will Yeguete, who is having arthroscopic knee surgery to clean out bone fragments which have created swelling and tendinitis making it difficult for Yeguete to play.
They have certainly gotten used to playing with altered lineups this season due to injuries and suspensions so this is nothing new for them.
“I think anytime you lose a player on your team it always hurts,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “But this is not something that we are unaccustomed to dealing with this year.”
The loss of Yeguete for the rest of the regular season cannot be discounted, however, as his length, athleticism, and activeness on defense are difficult to replace.
“I feel bad for Will. I think as a coach you’re alwyas going to deal with the players who are available to play. I feel more disappointed for him because I think he’s worked hard, he’s a good kid. He’s obviously made a huge impact on our team. He’s a guy that does things for our team that not a lot of guys do. He’s a great defender, he’s a great rebounder, he gives you a lot of flexibility on the defensive end of the floor with different things you can do. From pressing to halfcourt defense to switching to having him guard certain players. So that’s going to be definitely a loss but that’s just part of competing,
In his place, the Gators will turn to a couple of freshman Michael Frazier and DeVon Walker in an attempt to pick up the slack. The difficulty is trying to rebound from a very difficult loss without a key component of your lineup. Frazier was somewhat philosophical about the tough loss to Arkansas and what they need to do going forward.
“(the loss) put us in our place,” Frazier said. “We had a lot of success and we just have to able to handle success better than this.”
“It’s all about competing,” he added. “Coach always talks a lot about the process. We’ve just got to get back to the basics, get back to what we were doing. Just learning every day in practice, focusing on that, try to get better every day. When you want to win at the level we want to win at nothing going to come easy. We just have to be mindful of that, stay focused, continue to work hard and just learn from this experience.”
Forward Casey Prather, while cleared to play, still hasn’t recovered from the high ankle sprain that sidelined him for a few weeks and has been largely ineffective since his return, So expect a little experimentation with the lineup from head coach Billy Donovan as the Gators seek an effective answer to the loss of Yeguete and his defensive prowess. He played one minute against Arkansas and sat out the rest of the game. The Gators looked lost defensively without him particularly in their press, where Yeguete’s length and athleticism is the catalyst.
Even without Yeguete, the Gators are not nearly as bad as they appeared against Arkansas and shouldn’t have much problem with the Bulldogs who they handled easily in Starkville 82-47 exactly two weeks ago. The Bulldogs are coming off a 93-75 road loss at Ole Miss where Marshall Henderson and company dominated from start to finish, their seventh straight loss.
The Gators, who’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the country all season will certainly need to regroup and get back to the fundamentals that led to a ten game winning streak where their average margin of victory was plus 26 points per game.
“We still got room for improvement as a whole,” guard Mike Rosario said. “The message that I gave my teammates is “we’ve just got to move on to the next game and prepare for our next opponent. Just come to practice and get better today. That’s our goal now.”
“We’ve just got to go into every game with the urgency of ‘we’ve got a target on us and it’s us against the world’ type attitude and I feel like if we have that as a whole team then we’ll be in good shape,” he added.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, will be simply trying to hang with the Gators a little better than last time when the Gators got out to a quick lead and were never threatened. The biggest question in that game, as has been the case with most of the Gator games this season, is would they get to 50 points. Heck they probably wouldn’t have gotten to forty if Donovan hadn’t taken the starters out with two minutes to go.
They will certainly have to play better in this one if they hope to have a chance. It’s not highly likely, though, as the Bulldogs are last in the conference and the Gators are undefeated at home this season.
They will have to take a page out of the Arkansas game. Patient offense with good ball movement, get into the lane, and play solid defense forcing the Gators into tough perimeter shots. Especially with the Gators lacking depth in the frontcourt, the Bulldogs will need to get the ball inside hoping to get the Gators into foul trouble and exploit that defensively keeping the Gators out of the paint forcing them to hit perimeter shots and boxing out on the boards.
If they can do that they may have a chance, but even then it still may not be enough. The talent level that the Gators put on the floor will likely be too much for the Bulldogs. Donovan will surely have his guys ready to play after the embarrassment of the other evening.
“It goes back to what I’ve always said, everybody always talks about where we’re ranked or what our defensive numbers are, it doesn’t mean anything,” Donovan said. “It really doesn’t. We didn’t look like a very good defensive team on Tuesday. So I never, ever really buy into any of that stuff. It’s really how do you play in that game. And right now as of today we’re a really bad defensive team. Right now, because that’s our last game. We’re a bad defensive team. So we’ve got to try and get better and that’s been my whole message all along from day one. Can we continue to get better? Deal with the distractions that are all around you? What do you do with the next challenge in front of you?
One of the biggest questions for the Gators will be how ready freshman DeVon Walker will be? A lightly used player to this point he will have some big shoes to fill stepping into the lineup. Donovan is unsure how ready he is or how effective he can actually be.
“I don’t know if he’s ready. We don’t have a whole lot of choices right now. but I would say this about DeVon Walker which I like, he’s highly competitive, he’s a tough kid. I think he’ll step in there and give us everything he has. that’s a comforting part.
“Is he going to be in the right spot all the time? Donovan queried. “Probably not. Is he going to make some mistakes? Absolutely. Has he absorbed enough minutes to have any level of experience to handle that? Probably not. But I think for him, I do have confidence in his competitiveness. In his willingness to do whatever is necessary to help our team. I feel really good about that. But he’s still obviously got a long way to go to continue to improve and get better. We’ll see what he does when he gets out there. I say this all the time that freshman a lot of time are not playing as much as they want. They always want to play more, play more. He’s going to get a chance to play a little more.”
Indeed we will see how ready both he and Michael Frazier are in this game and going forward for the Gators. And just how ready the Gators are to play without one of their heart and soul players. Tonight it’s lowly Mississippi State, Tuesday it will be Kentucky. A huge test to say the least.
Tipoff from the O’Dome will be 5 pm eastern and will be broadcast on FSN/Sunsports.