By Chris Mahr
Perhaps it’s just me, but if feels like the college basketball watching public at large is barely talking about Billy Donovan’s best Florida team since his back-to-back national championship squads from 2006 and ’07.
Yes, that includes Lost Lettermen. Of all the teams currently in the Top 10, perhaps No. 10 Oregon is the only one that we’ve spoken about less than Florida. Heck, even in the SEC we’ve had more to talk about with Kentucky (unexpected struggles after a championship season) and Ole Miss (the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him insanity of Marshall Henderson).
Yet like their Gators’ namesake, fourth-ranked Florida is lying in wait. Let the other teams in the Top 25 and the SEC grab all the headlines now. Come March, however, you better believe that Billy Donovan and company will be a force to be reckoned with.
In the two years when the Gators were the unquestioned best team in college basketball, they won with a balanced offense — in any one game they could be paced by Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah or Al Horford — and a lockdown defense (for which Noah got most of the pub). Nearly six years after that second title, that winning formula has resurfaced.
Florida’s leading scorer, Kenny Boynton, averages just 13.6 PPG, but he’s one of four Gators averaging double figures in scoring. It’s not only an offensively balanced team, it’s also an efficient one. Florida is ninth in the country in team field goal percentage (49.3%) and, on average, turns the ball over less than 12 times per game.
That alone would make the Gators worthy of making it to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. But it’s their smothering defense that make them a viable threat to cut down the nets in Atlanta – just like they did the last time the Final Four was held there in ’07.
As dominant a defender as he was in Gainesville, even Noah would acknowledge that none of his Florida teams were quite as stifling as this year’s group. The Gators are third in the nation in scoring defense (51.2 PPG) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (36.1%). They haven’t allowed more than 67 points in a game this season. Since the New Year, no one has cracked 60 on them.
A team that just missed last year’s Final Four also has tremendous experience like the 2007 squad, with three seniors (Boynton, Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy) and two juniors (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin) in the starting lineup.
Critics may point to the less-than-stellar SEC competition that Florida has faced this season. Or the losses that it sustained to arguably its two toughest opponents, No. 8 Arizona and No. 18 Kansas State. Yet keep in mind that those two defeats were by a combined seven points. And regardless of who you’re playing, if the average result of your first 18 games is a 74–51 victory, you’re doing something right.
Whether the Gators can continue to do so through March will be determined by their home games against Ole Miss and Kentucky in the next two weeks. Should they exhibit the same efficient offense and muzzling defense that they wielded in their Jan. 19 thumping of No. 17 Missouri, any Florida doubters will quickly be turned.
And that national conversation that has omitted the Gators thus far? It will surely turn its eyes to Gainesville as spring approaches.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey/USA Today Sports