Florida 83, Missouri 52: Gators thrash Tigers, make case as college basketball's best team

Al Messerschmidt

Florida's 2012-13 season has been full of thoroughly impressive beatdowns of good teams. The Gators' vivisection of Missouri on Saturday is from an entirely different category of dominance.

If you don't think Florida's the best team in college basketball, let me explain with words and numbers why you should. It's pretty easy to do both the case-making and the believing after Florida's 83-52 annihilation of Missouri.

Florida has improved its defense from good last year to incredible this year, an improvement to a flabbergasting degree that isn't just attributable to the Gators getting to start a point guard who isn't listed at 5'8". Replacing Erving Walker with Scottie Wilbekin is a tremendous upgrade, and Kenny Boynton getting to guard the other team's second-best guard is unfair. Hiding Mike Rosario's a lot easier when he doesn't really need hiding, and playing Patric Young with Erik Murphy gives Florida an eraser and a sound defensive player inside to protect the rim well enough to make the Secret Service proud. And Will Yeguete and Casey Prather come off the bench!

That defense held Missouri, the nation's 20th-best offense, to 0.73 points per possession on Saturday. Louisville, which has the nation's best defense from an efficiency standpoint (and according to most eyeball tests), only held the Tigers to 0.85 points per possession in a November game. It's held 13 other teams under a point per possession, and has only not done that in games against Arizona and Kansas State that featured hot shooting from the other side.

And it does all the things you want a defense to be able to do well: Florida pressures the ball and imposes its tempo beautifully, shuts down key players with Wilbekin's sensational individual defense, rations chances at the rim like dentist parents do candy, forces turnovers in bunches, and comes out on shooters effectively, at least usually.

Even when Florida's play in of those aspects slips — Florida didn't play great three-point defense on Saturday, for example, allowing a handful of open threes that Missouri missed — Florida doesn't melt down, and doesn't let up. The Gators defended about as well with leads exceeding 25 points in the second half against Missouri as they did in short-circuiting the Tigers' attack early.

That defense is championship-caliber on its own, and strongly reminiscent of the masterful defense Florida played in 2005-06 and 2006-07. But those teams may not have been as good as this Florida team is on both defense and offense.

Florida played seven players before garbage time on Saturday: Wilbekin, Boynton, Rosario, Murphy, Young, Yeguete, and Michael Frazier. All of them ended up with seven or more points, and all but Rosario and Frazier finished in double digits, but none of them took more than 11 shots. Players who score more than a point per field goal attempt are usually efficient; Florida had seven of them on the floor, and was missing Casey Prather, who's been extraordinarily efficient for a swingman without a three-point stroke.

Since moving Wilbekin to point guard closer to full time, Florida's been excellent at moving the ball, running offense, and waiting for someone to come off a screen with an open three or a way to score in the lane. That ball movement was on display on Saturday, with Florida whipping the ball around and getting open looks time and again: Wilbekin finished with 10 assists to go with his 13 points, registering his first double-double, and Florida had 21 assists on 35 made shots.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Florida made 35 shots on 69 possessions, an absurd rate of offensive success against any team, much less a ranked team from your conference.

Florida has been great on both offense and defense this year, so good that it's been able to essentially shrug off massive turnover totals (20 in a thumping of Wisconsin; 16 on Saturday) and small free throw totals (13 taken against Texas A&M on Thursday; eightagainst Missouri) and still hit the afterburners for enormous wins. Florida's led by 16 or more points in every one of its 14 wins this year, and led by double digits at Arizona, too.

And even with two losses, Florida's average margin of victory is ... 22.1 points per game. The Gators have beaten at least five NCAA Tournament-bound teams (Wisconsin, Middle Tennessee State, Marquette, Florida State, and Missouri), and suffered their two losses to NCAA Tournament teams.

Florida is dominant against very good teams, good teams, bad teams, and horrible teams. Florida is balanced enough to be dominant on offense and defense. And Florida hasn't had all of its players at full strength yet, with injuries to every major contributor except Young (and Frazier, if you count him as a major contributor) and an early suspension for Wilbekin preventing the Gators from having every player at 100 percent at any one point.

A combination of cold shooting for Florida and hot shooting for Kansas State over the holiday break gave the Gators one loss, and a disastrous minute in Tucson provided another. Those losses can't be ignored in the assessment of how good Florida is, even though there are more wins like Saturday's in the ledger than there are losses.

But those losses look more and more like outliers for a fantastic, national championship-caliber squad. The Gators gave Billy Donovan his 400th win as Florida's coach and made the milestone an afterthought by flipping on the afterburners to scorch Missouri, looking even better against a ranked team less than 48 hours after tipoff in a road game in a different time zone than they ever had before.

Have doubts about what Florida's play in small sample sizes says about its ability to come through in crucial moments if you want. Bash the SEC as a bad conference: It is.

But ignore that the Gators have been a merciless basketball machine far, far more often than not — and one that seems be getting better — at your own peril.

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