GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s never a good idea to enter the athletic arena without at least some element of appreciation for the opponent.
Florida coach Billy Donovan and his staff do a very good job presenting to their team what the opponent does well and convincing the Gators any outcome is possible. Sometimes just putting on the tape can be enough.
Take Thursday night, for example. The Gators certainly were aware of the pitfalls in going to Texas A&M. The most recent tape of the Aggies showed forward Elston Turner going into Rupp Arena and lighting up defending national champion Kentucky for 40 points.
Against the Gators, Turner went 1-for-10 and scored four points.
“Maybe Kentucky didn’t respect him, I don't know?” guard Scottie Wilbekin said afterward. “We came in with respect for his game.”
Which brings us to Missouri.
In the post-game interview session Saturday after the 10th-ranked Gators thrashed the No. 17 Tigers 83-52 at the sold-out O’Connell Center, Mizzou guard Keion Bell summed up the program’s worse loss in nearly five years like so.
“I just think we underestimated the amount of pressure their full-court press would put on us,” Bell said.
As the words came from his player’s mouth, you could almost see steam coming out of Coach Frank Haith’s ears. From the corner of his eye, Bell may have sensed that heat in the little glance fromm Haith sent his way.
Bell immediatley tried to rally.
“Although the coaching staff has been embedding [that] in our brain throughout the whole week, we just didn’t take heed to the things that they were saying about Florida’s pressure,” Bell said. “We just weren’t ready in the beginning of the game.”
Florida, meanwhile, was very much ready, racing to an 11-0 lead and swelled to 17 by halftime. It’s definitely worth noting the Tigers were without their leading scorer and second-best rebounder, 6-foot-8 forward Lawrence Bowers, but you have to figure the Gators would have pounced on him, too.
What UF needs to understand -- and Donovan will make clear -- is an orange-and-blue beacon is now coloring the Southeastern Conference skyline. Right now, this is the basketball team that everybody is going to gear up for.
The Gators have now beaten four league opponents by 33, 22, 21 and 31 points, respectively, with their next three games -- at Georgia, at Mississippi State and home against South Carolina -- against teams with a combined league mark of 4-8.
Several UF players spoke after the Mizzou beatdown about the quest for an SEC championship, clearly a very real goal. It's true, the league may be down this year, but every team is going to be a little more focused, a little more motivated, a little hungrier when Florida comes to town.
Put the Feb. 19 trip to Columbia, Mo., at the top of that list.
The first thing the Gators pack for that trip -- and bring to every game, as they have to date -- is the proper respect for the competition.
MAINTAINING THE STANDARD
The Gators were pounding the Aggies by 30 points when Donovan emptied his bench Thursday night to let his four freshmen -- Michael Frazier II, DeVon Walker, Dillon Graham and Braxton Ogbueze -- clean up alongside walk-on Jacob Kurtz.
UF’s last five possessions produced four turnovers and a 9-0 run by A&M to end the game.
There’s a reason some players don’t play, but there’s also a standard that comes with putting on the uniform; even in a 30-point rout. The last 2:13 of that game did not approach the UF standard, even for reserves, and collectively (and very directly) the unit heard about it afterward.
Donovan addressed it publicly the next day.
“Right now, because of our injuries and things like that, our guys have to realize they’re a man or two away from being in significant roles,” he said. “In defense of them, when you’re sitting on the bench for 36 minutes and you’re not in the flow of the game, sometimes it’s hard to go out there and play well.”
But that can’t be an excuse, especially if one of those players is needed when the possessions really do matter.
“I don’t expect them to make shots and be perfect execution-wise, but I think we can go down the floor, take care of the basketball, make good decisions, get a shot up and then go down the floor and guard,” Donovan said. “They have to understand there’s going to be a time where they’re going to be relied upon. Foul trouble? Injuries? Something happens? They’ve got to give us, as coaches, some confidence that they’re going to be able to handle their responsibility.”
That same unit got another chance Saturday when inserted with 2:31 to play against Missouri and the Gators up by 31. This time, it was a 5-5 stalemate, including a rousing fallaway jumper by Kurtz (which set off the above reaction from UF’s bench) and a run-out dunk by Frazier on a feed from Ogbueze.
Wilbekin tied his career-high with 10 assists against Mizzou. What is the UF single-game record for assists in a game?
Answer below in the “Free Throws” section.
EX-GATOR OF THE WEEK
San Antonio reserve forward Matt Bonner is only averaging 3.3 points per game. In 14 games this season, he has failed to score, including a four-game run heading into Saturday night’s date against Atlanta.
Against the Hawks, Bonner scored a season-high 17, going 7-for-8 from the floor and making all three of his 3-point attempts in a 98-93 win. His 17 points were 10 more than Bonner had scored in seven previous games this month.
The Spurs have won four straight and currently are the third-best team in the Western Conference with a 32-11 record.
ANOTHER 48 HOURS
The sweep of Texas A&M and Missouri improved the Gators to 15-1 in
Thursday-Saturday games since the SEC and ESPN signed their lucrative TV contract before the 2009-10 season. That says a lot about how well the coaches and training staff use the condensed amount of time turnaround time to put themselves in position to succeed. Here’s a look back at those 16 games. Asterisk denotes home team.
Jan. 21-23: UF 71, *Arkansas 66 and *UF 58, South Carolina 56
Feb. 4-6: UF 66, *Alabama 65 and *UF 69, Mississippi State 62
Feb. 18-20: *UF 78, Auburn 70 and UF 64, *Ole Miss 61
Jan. 20-22: UF 45, *Auburn 40 and *UF 75, Arkansas 43
Feb. 24-26: *UF 71, Georgia 62 and *Kentucky 76, Florida 68
Jan. 26-28: UF 64, *Ole Miss 60 and *UF 69, Mississippi State 57
Feb. 2-4: *UF 74, South Carolina 66 and *UF 74, Vanderbilt 66
Jan. 17-19: UF 68, *Texas A&M 47 and *UF 83, Missouri 52
SILLY GATOR PHOTO OF THE WEEK
With 14 points, UF senior guard Kenny Boynton now has 1,801 for his career and is 130 points from passing Andrew Moten (1,930 from 1984-87) for No. 2 on the school’s all-time scoring list. ... Got a kick out of the Missouri writers, who watched Wilbekin utterly dismantle future NBA point guard Phil Pressey (1-for-7, career-worst 10 turnovers) and promptly nicknamed the UF point guard “Scottie Wildebeast.” ... Then there was David Whitley, of The Sporting News, who described Wilbekin as a “6-foot-2 Doberman who’s convinced his opponent has a T-bone under his jersey. ... UF’s 21 assists against the Tigers was a season-high, with almost (10) from “Wildebeast,” who has 32 over his last five games. ... Haith said after the game that Florida was “right there” with the best teams Missouri had played this season. That list includes Louisville, which rose to No. 1 last week. ... The loss to Florida was Missouri’s worst since a 100-63 annihilation at Kansas State on Feb. 16, 2008. ... Trivia answer: Jason Williams had 17 assists in a 99-66 win against Duquense on Dec. 3, 1997.