Healthy Florida is a national title contender

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
1:00
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The thing about assessing college basketball teams in November and December is that it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right.

A team’s full story is usually more layered than one outcome, one matchup or one streak can accurately illustrate in the first few weeks and months of any season.

Sometimes key players are injured. Sometimes key players are suspended. Sometimes key players are just green.

In No. 19 Florida’s case, all three have been factors.

The Gators have had enough drama to warrant an E! reality TV show.

They entered Tuesday’s 67-61 win over No. 13 Kansas at the O’Connell Center approaching 100 percent. In its most high-profile matchup of the year to date, Florida was almost fully staffed. The result was one of the most dominant performances -- in the first half, at least -- any team has ever played against Kansas and a reminder of what’s possible when a team can finally use most of the players on its roster.

It was also a warning against premature analysis of a team in flux.

There were 16 -- yes, 16 -- Kansas turnovers in the first half thanks to Florida's frustrating 1-3-1 zone. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kansas committed turnovers on nine of its 18 possessions and went 4-for-15 from the field against the 1-3-1.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin's 18 points, six assists and four steals gave Gators fans a glimpse of what he can provide when he's in the flow of things.
The Jayhawks played like a team trapped in a fire pit.

There was a 21-0 Florida run that followed a 10-3 start by Kansas, changing the atmosphere in Florida’s home venue. After missing six of their first seven shots in the first half, the Gators went 7-for-12 during that rally. Kansas failed to score for 8:43.

If the Gators were spontaneously lucky, then the Jayhawks were suddenly cursed. Blowouts can begin with such a sweeping shift that even the players involved can’t describe it.

“I don’t know what happened,” Kansas star Andrew Wiggins said. “They just went on a run.”

The Gators resisted a furious second-half Kansas rally that arose when Wiggins decided to cook up his best college game to date (first career double-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four turnovers), showing NBA scouts that he's still worthy of being the No. 1 pick in next year's draft.

But Patric Young & Co. stayed strong and avoided panic.

“It just shows that when this team is healthy and has everybody out there, or even when we don’t, we’re going to put five guys out there that are going to play hard and run our offense and play our style of play,” said Young, who finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three solid shoulders (minimum) into Kansas freshman Joel Embiid's sternum. “Our style of play was overwhelming for them. We need to bring that every single day.”

Freshman Kasey Hill played 20 minutes after nursing an ankle injury and missing the previous four games. Scottie Wilbekin, who served a suspension at the beginning of the season, suffered an ankle injury during Florida’s last-second loss at UConn last week. But he started against the Jayhawks.

Even with Wilbekin and Hill available, the Gators aren’t 100 percent.

Billy Donovan’s roster was missing five players due to suspension, illness or injury (excluding top-10 recruit Chris Walker, who was academically ineligible for the first semester) as the program prepared for its season opener against North Florida.

South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris will reportedly leave the team. Eli Carter, who averaged 14.9 PPG for Rutgers in 2012-13, will reportedly redshirt after suffering a broken leg last season. And Walker’s status is still undetermined, though he could be eligible in a few days.

What do you get when you add a 6-foot-10 potential lottery pick to a nationally ranked program that’s playing some of the best defense in America?

“I really don’t know. I know he’s a very good athlete,” Donovan said. “My biggest thing with him is going to be how quickly can he pick things up. And I’ve got to do a good job of keeping things simple for him. ... I hope it will work out.”

The (moving toward) full-strength Gators are quite talented -- Final Four talented.

That Kansas offense that crumbled under the pressure of a stiff zone in the first half is encumbered by problems such as inexperience, imbalance, inconsistency and shaky guard play.

But Bill Self’s boys lost to an elite Florida squad. Tuesday night was just its first chance to prove it. Florida doesn’t have one player who has averaged more than 20-plus minutes per game and played in all nine contests this season.

Florida didn’t have Dorian Finney-Smith or Wilbekin in its loss to Wisconsin. Finney-Smith scored 15 points Tuesday and triggered that first-half rally by going 4-for-6 from the 3-point line. Wilbekin recorded a team-high 18 points, six assists and four steals in 36 dazzling minutes.

“Once you get them back, it is a good feeling to have everybody out there playing together,” Wilbekin said. “You can see it. More rest. More versatile with what we can do on offense. And I think this is the first time you’ve seen us with everybody.”

The Gators are growing as they solidify their roster. That constrictive defensive display against a program that might boast three first-round draft picks was impressive because of its effectiveness and suddenness.

Florida, if healthy, suspension-free and eligible, could be the SEC’s best team and a national title contender in March.

But the Gators need more time together.

“I’m hopeful now, as we try to get a little bit healthier in this next week, it’d be good for us to get some of that continuity and cohesiveness on the court because there are times I see it and other times [not],” Donovan said. “I think guys need reps.”

Florida wasn’t pleased with the second-half sloppiness that could have turned a great win into a heartbreaking loss, though.

Once Florida began to play man-to-man defense in the second half, Wiggins grabbed his cape. He penetrated. He hit jump shots. He drew fouls. He was almost a hero.

Kansas had a final shot to change the outcome when it was down just 61-55 in the final minute. Florida unraveled at the free throw line (15-for-23 after halftime) and couldn’t stick Wiggins. But the turnover ghost continued to haunt the Jayhawks.

Brannen Greene lost control and fumbled the ball out of bounds with 45 seconds to play and a chance to cut Florida’s lead to two or three, dooming the Jayhawks to their third loss in the past four games.

“We’re just not a real skilled team,” Self said, “yet.”

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