The Florida Gator men’s basketball team continue to win. And continue to rise in the polls. After handily beating the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, the Gators 11th consecutive victory, they rose into the top five of the national polls settling at #3 in the AP and #4 in the USA Today coaches poll.
The Gators trail only the three unbeatens left in college basketball in the coaches poll, Arizona, Syracuse, and Wichita State and lie one spot ahead of Wichita in the AP poll.
The news isn’t surprising if you watched Saturday’s game as they masterfully dispatched the Vols with a disruptive full court press and suffocating mix of zone and man-to-man half court defense. They held the Vols to 26.8% shooting and 1-19 from three point range. Masterful defense at it’s best. Perhaps their best defensive performance of the season.
However, considering where they were at the start of the season, you might be a little surprised at how far they’ve come. The Gators started the season with lots of concerns and a depleted roster. After losing 2/3 of their offense and their top three scorers from last season, there were more questions than answers coming into the season. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin began the season… off the team. Booted indefinitely for undisclosed violation of team rules it wasn’t even clear if Wilbekin would even be available to play this season. Transfer Damontre Harris who was expected to play a big role for the Gators was kicked off the team before ever playing in a game. McDonald’s All American Chris “Sky” Walker the high flying acrobatic power forward missed the fall semester while he finished up high school courses. Despite being cleared to enroll by the university, the NCAA still has yet to clear him to play.
For much of the pre-conference schedule the Gators couldn’t even line up a full ten guys to practice. The lineup changed weekly as head coach Billy Donovan struggled to keep a lineup together to even compete. Injuries sidelined freshman point guard Kasey Hill and leading scorer Casey Prather. Despite their struggles, the Gators persevered… and won. The only blemishes? A tough, hard fought road loss to a very tough Wisconsin team and the one point loss to Connecticut on a buzzer beating shot. Since then they’ve rattled off eleven straight starting with a huge victory over the Kansas Jayhawks.
It’s defined as “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
That pretty much sums up the Gators basketball performance this season. They’ve done it in spite of a lack of lineup consistency. for a game that relies a lot on communication and timing, the lack of consistency in the lineup particularly in practice make it very hard to perform successfully in game action.
“One of the areas we were behind on I felt,” Billy Donovan said. “We were behind in terms of these guys playing together because of suspensions, injuries, and a lack of cohesiveness.”
Yet they’ve continued to win in spite of it.
A lot of the Gators success is due to the improved play and maturity of point guard Scottie Wilbekin. Since his return from suspension, Scottie has been the glue that has kept this team together as well as the oil that has helped it flow smoothly. From leading the press defensively to running the offense, Scottie has been the undisputed leader of this basketball team. He just has a better feel for what his role is this season than maybe he did in season’s past. From driving the lane, making the extra pass, and dishing to open shooters or dropping it to big men in the paint to hitting clutch shots to shut down opposing team point runs and hitting free throws to close out games, Scottie has kept this team from losing it’s composure at all the right times.
“I think one of the things that happened (was) when he first came back he was getting a lot of assists,” Donovan said. “Then I thought after a few games it went the other way. He was scoring more points and he wasn’t getting as many assists. I thought he got too offensive-minded in terms of trying to create and maybe do a little bit too much. I think now he’s back to playing a little bit more balanced. I think he’s done better.”
Another player who has stepped up his game considerably this season is power forward Casey Prather. An athletic swing man who in year’s past was limited to being a role player off the bench, Prather has become the Gators leading scorer this season. Coming in to his senior year Prather averaged a paltry 3.1 points per game but has broken out to become the SEC’s ninth leading scorer with a 16.8 ppg average.
Never known as a jump shooter, Prather is the Gator’s most athletic big man who is a great rebounder and gets his points on putbacks and slashing athletic post moves. He has a quick first step and can get to the rim with speed and authority, often before a defender ever has a chance to make a move. His meteoric rise, making him perhaps the most improved player in the nation, has been a pleasant surprise for the Gators. It has also been necessary for a team devoid of the normal roster full of marksman-like outside shooters.
One guy who is known as a shooter that has stepped up as well has been guard Michael Frazier. Every Donovan team has at least one designated three point shooter, ala Lee “for three” Humphrey and Erik Murphy. This year it’s Michael Frazier who is second in the SEC this season shooting 45.6% on three point attempts. Frazier has been deadly accurate from outside and has hit some big three point shots to energize the O’dome crowd or take the life out of opposing team’s fans. Of late, however, Frazier has shown he’s not just a catch and shoot three point specialist. Coach Donovan stressed the need to use his shot fake and put the ball on the floor a little more to not only help him get more open looks but also to break down an opposing defense.
“Coach told me I could use my shot fake to make plays for my teammates and any time I could do that it’s good for our team,” Frazier said.
Against Tennessee, the shot fake and dribble into the lane opened center Patric Young up for a monstrous one-handed Sports Center top ten dunk which shook the O’Dome and sent the home crowd into a frenzy. When teams see him putting the ball on the floor rather than just jacking up threes it forces them to respect the drive and should allow him a lot more open three looks in the future.
The Gators continue to roll like an out of control locomotive climbing up the polls into the top five. For a team that had so many question marks coming into this season, the ride has been remarkable. If they get Chris Walker eligible, which is expected any day now, they could very well be unstoppable. Do they have enough for either Arizona or Syracuse? That remains to be seen, but if they continue to play well and improve they very well could compete for a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. For now though they’ve gotten the attention of poll voters. For a team that has gone to the Elite Eight three consecutive seasons, a Final Four berth could realistically be in their future. And this could very well be coach Billy Donovan’s most remarkable coaching job yet.