Florida Gators Remain at #3, Tough Stretch Ahead

Could this be the season Billy Donovan gets to cut down the nets again?

Could this be the season Billy Donovan gets to cut down the nets again?

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).

The Gators will go as far as their defense will take them this season. (Columbia Tribune)

The Gators will go as far as their defense will take them this season. (Columbia Tribune)

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.

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Perseverance: Surprising Gators Jump to Into the Top Five

Billy Donovan may have produced his most masterful coaching job yet helping this team to a #3 national ranking. Phot credit to thebullgator.com

Billy Donovan may have produced his most masterful coaching job yet helping this team to a #3 national ranking. Phot credit to thebullgator.com

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.

Perseverance.

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.

Perseverance

Scottie Wilbekin has been the glue and the oil for this Gator team which is up to #3 in the AP poll. Photo credit to usatoday

Scottie Wilbekin has been the glue and the oil for this Gator team which is up to #3 in the AP poll. Photo credit to usatoday

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.

Casey Prather is the most improved player in the nation this season. photo credit to nydailynews.com

Casey Prather is the most improved player in the nation this season. photo credit to nydailynews.com

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.