After defeating Missouri and Alabama this past week and remaining undefeated (10-0) in the SEC, the Florida Gators stayed at #3 in the nation in the AP poll. With the victories the Gators winning streak is at 15 and they are 21-2 overall tied for best 23 game start in school history.
The Gators have had to overcome many obstacles this season to get to where they are including a five game suspension to senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin to open the season, the dismissal of transfer Damontre Harris who was expected to provide depth in the post, the Chris Walker saga, and injuries. For much of the pre-conference schedule, the Gators struggled to field a starting lineup and were forced to scramble to find enough bodies to scrimmage in practice.
Just past the mid-way point of the conference schedule they are finally at full strength roster-wise. Wilbekin has returned strong to lead team, Harris has been allowed back on the team and in practice although he won’t play on court this season, Walker was finally cleared to play, and they are almost completely healthy (though Prather still struggles with a high ankle sprain).
With the winning streak the Gators have not only risen in the polls but have gained significant media attention as a potential number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite the national attention, the Gators continue to show cracks in their game. Offensive lulls and defensive lapses continue to plague them, particularly in the first half of games, which have allowed somewhat over-matched teams to hang around. An apparent inability to maintain focus when they get out to big leads also continues to be a problem as well as an inability to put teams away when faced with the opportunity.
None of that, of course, has mattered during the winning streak which has Gator fans excited about the tournament prospects for this team. While that excitement is certainly justified, it should be tempered somewhat considering a scheduling quirk which had the Gators facing a somewhat favorable first half conference schedule. With most of their first ten SEC games coming against lower tier teams, the Gators haven’t faced the kind of rosters they will see come NCAA tournament time.
“But on the other side of it (win streak), you don’t know how your league schedule when it’s given to you how it’s going to shake out,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “In reality if you look at the league standings right now, most of our road games have been against the bottom half of this league. And most of our schedule has been against the bottom half of this league. Now we did play Tennessee here at home, we did play Missouri here at home, but most of our games have been against the bottom half of the league.”
The next five games, however, will be the big reveal for these Gators. Are they truly national title contenders or are they really just pretenders? The Gators face Tennessee, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt all on the road as part of a tough five game stretch with only a home game against Auburn separating them. As far as SEC play is concerned, that is a murderer’s row.
“With four of the next five on the road,” Donovan said, adding, “going to Tennessee on Tuesday and only having one home game in the next two weeks, and then five of your last eight are on the road, it’s all going to even out. So I’m not overly joyous and great because we’re 10-0, I think it will all shake out at the end after 18 games and we’re past the half point right now. The thing I’m most proud about our guys has been to keep them really together, playing hard playing well together.”
Donovan, for his part, is confident his team is adequately prepared for this stretch considering the tough pre-conference schedule they played to start the season.
“I thought our non-conference schedule got us prepared for later on in the league,” Donovan said. “Going to Wisconsin was a tough environment, having to go to Connecticut in a tough environment and then obviously, we’ve played four road games in a short period of time to start the league.”
They also have some strong senior leadership to fall back on in Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete. These guys have been here before. They’ve played the tough conference road games, they’ve faced a tough non-conference schedule for four years, and have been a part of three consecutive NCAA tourney Elite Eight teams. They understand what it takes to win on the road in a hostile environment.
“I’ve got confidence in our guys going on the road and playing,” said Donovan. “We’ve got some older guys that have been through it. They understand it and know what it takes.”
Still, on Tuesday night, they’re going to face a team they dominated in the first match up at home but cannot expect an easy repeat performance.
“We’re going against a team that is playing very good basketball and it wasn’t so long ago that we played them,” Donovan said about tonight’s match up with Tennessee. “It’s a similar situation to what he had with Alabama. There is some familiarity because we’ve played each other once. The only difference is that instead of Alabama coming here is that we’re going to Tennessee (with a) quick turnaround playing Saturday and Tuesday. The one positive is that you have enough time where there’s familiarity because our guys have played against each other. I’m sure there is familiarity on their part, too. We’re going to have to be ready to go out there and play.”
Despite the easy home victory in the last match up with the Vols, the Gators have struggled when playing them on the road of late and that has to be a concern.
“I think we’ve lost the last two there and it’s a tough place to play,” Wilbekin said. “They have a great crowd up there. They play really well at their home court, so it’s going to be a tough game, but we do really want to win it.”
And, of course, unlike the first match up, they cannot expect leading scorer Jordan McRae to go 1-15 from the field. He’s a capable scorer who can get hot and dominate a game. Asked about what he thinks will be different for Tennessee the second time around, Scottie Wilbekin answered,
“I think (Tennessee’s Jordan) McRae, I think he would have liked to have shot the ball better, obviously he’s a great player and he’s capable of going off for 30 points, so I know that he’s going to come out looking to get some buckets in front of his home crowd.”
The Gators cannot expect the Volunteers to shoot 1-19 from three point range either. They have some strong long range shooters in addition to McRae and the Gators have to be prepared to defend the three point line something they’ve struggled to do at times including in their last game against Alabama.
“I think our guys understand (the need to defend the three point shot),” Donovan said. “I think if you look at the last several games, what (Jordan) McRae has done from behind the line, it reminds me very much of what Jabari Brown is doing in this league. If you look at their numbers at home from the three-point line, they’re pretty incredible. Like you said, they’re not going to shoot that kind of percentage like they did (here). They’re at home, they’re more comfortable. I think they are a very, very dangerous three-point shooting team and if you look at their home stats, when they’re at home, they are shooting a very high percentage from the three.”
So the Gators certainly have their work cut out for them not only on Tuesday night against Tennessee but also during this tough upcoming five game stretch. What will be key for the Gators to help them extend their 15 game winning streak?
“Just focusing on defense,” said senior forward Will Yeguete. “Getting stops down the stretch and, regardless of what’s going on in the game, just being able to move on and stay focused.”
With the Gators being somewhat limited and inconsistent on offense, they live and die with their defensive prowess. When they’re focused, they are as good as any team in the nation; when they’re not, they can be beaten. The next five games will be their final exam before the start of the conference and NCAA tournaments. They will certainly have the opportunity to earn a number one seed come tournament time. They could also fall on their face. The ball’s in their court.