Florida Gators capable of another NCAA title

Florida Gators capable of another NCAA title

February 12th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Florida's Erik Murphy (33) blocks Missouri guard Jabari Brown (32) as teammate Florida Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) watches during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Gainesville, Fla.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

FINAL 4 CONTENDER FLORIDA AT A GLANCE

• Record: 19-3 (9-1 SEC)

• AP Rank: No. 7

• RPI/Strength of Schedule: 5/11

• Best win: 82-49 over Marquette, which entered Monday tied for the Big East lead with Syracuse

• Worst loss: 80-69 at Arkansas

• Miles from Gainesville, Fla., to the Georgia Dome: 337

• Strengths: Depth and experience. Eight Gators average at least 15 minutes a game. All eight also average six or more points, and seven of the eight are seniors or juniors. Throw in a rebound advantage of 7.9 a game, 49 percent field-goal shooting and a victory margin of 21.5 points a game, and it's easy to see why Florida is a Final Four choice of many.

• Weaknesses: Arkansas was able to create issues with dribble penetration, and if rugged junior forward Will Yeguete -- the Gators' second-leading rebounder -- is unable to return from injury for the postseason, inside defense could become a problem.

• Will be shooting at Big Peach baskets at Final Four if: Yeguete returns and a rare bad shooting night from the 3-point line doesn't keep the Gators from setting up their pressure defensive sets.

• Coachspeak: "I've never been beat that bad in my entire career. I think they're good enough to win the whole thing." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams after his team was crushed by Florida.

Because his No. 25 Wildcats visit No. 7 Florida tonight in the biggest Southeastern Conference basketball game of the season, Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked Monday what makes the Gators so good.

"They really play the ball well," he said. "They make your first pass -- your entry into offense -- very difficult. Their point guard is playing your point guard so hard."

Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin leads the Gators in assists (5.1 per game) and steals (1.6) and may be the most important reason that Florida (19-3, 9-1) currently stands No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's computer rankings and No. 2 in Jeff Sagarin's USA Today computer poll.

Or as his now-injured teammate Will Yeguete said after watching Wilbekin destroy preseason SEC player of the year pick Phil Pressey in a 30-point Gators chomping of Missouri last month, forcing Pressey into a career-worst 10 turnovers: "It all starts with Scottie."

In truth, it all starts with Billy Donovan, the former Rick Pitino assistant whose record at Florida has pretty much matched, if not exceeded, that of historical kingpin Kentucky ever since Billy the Kid took over the Gators in the spring of 1996.

Seventeen years later, Donovan has won as many NCAA titles as the Wildcats (two) but one more than any single UK coach over that span. He's been to one fewer Final Four than Big Blue in that time but played in the same number of title games (three). And if you remove his first two seasons on the job, he's won only nine fewer games (387 to 378) from the 1999 season forward.

And should Donovan's Gators win tonight, he will have his 15th straight 20-win season with the Gators.

But even his back-to-back national championship teams in 2006 and 2007 didn't deliver more impressive numbers than his current squad is racking up, winning by 21.5 points a game against a schedule ranked 11th toughest in the latest NCAA release.

"They beat us in every facet of the game," Missouri coach Frank Haith said after that 83-52 beatdown in Gainesville. "They're so very sound defensively. They closed down driving lanes, they did a great job of limiting you to one shot and they're a great block-out team."

Yet even as Donovan has proclaimed, "I thought coming into the season we had a chance to be really, really good defensively," some opposing coaches believe Florida's offense is equally overpowering.

"They're rock solid; they're sound," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said after a 75-36 loss two weeks ago. "What allows them to be so good defensively is how good they are on offense. They rarely take a bad shot. They rarely turn it over. If you try to guard them, they don't panic."

Donovan, long regarded as one of the game's brightest offensive minds, has much to do with his players' skill set. But experience helps also.

While Calipari again is attempting to mold a freshman-dominated team into a cohesive unit, Florida's top eight players consist of three seniors, four juniors and a single freshman.

So even though no Gator averages more points than senior guard Kenny Boynton (13.1 ppg), three of his teammates also score in double figures -- fellow seniors Erik Murphy (12.9) and Mike Rosario (12.5) and junior Patric Young (10.8) -- while Wilbekin tosses in 9.3 per game, Yeguete and freshman Michael Frazier six points each and junior Casey Prather 5.9.

Still, for all the gaudy offensive numbers, it's the defense that Wilbekin leads that is most responsible for ESPN's Jay Bilas recently saying, "I think Florida's the best team in the country."

Forcing more than 14 turnovers a game, the Gators are holding opponents to 37 percent shooting from the floor and outrebounding them by eight a contest.

"It was like they capitalized on every mistake we made early in the game," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton noted after a 72-47 home loss to Florida. "That's one of the better teams I've played since I've been at Florida State."

Much of the country will decide just how good the Gators are after tonight's hosting of the defending national champion Wildcats. A Florida win would all but wrap up the SEC regular-season championship and keep the team on a path to the Final Four in Atlanta, which also was the site of the school's 2007 crown.

A loss tonight, however, would prompt questions about whether the Gators peaked too soon. Not that they seem too worried.

After Saturday's 83-58 crushing of Mississippi State, Boynton said, "When we play like that, it's going to be hard to beat us."

When they play like that, they can deliver Donovan his third NCAA title.