Three weeks ago, Florida was 7-0, with a reasonable chance of coming into conference play undefeated. That didn't happen, with the Gators falling to Arizona and Kansas State on the road — fortunately, the only Wildcats in the SEC have even more talent than those two teams! — but Billy Donovan's crew did get to 10-2 in non-conference play, with one condensation-out against Georgetown ruining a good chance to get another win.
Wednesday night, in the O'Dome, Florida will take the court against Georgia to begin the SEC schedule, and will do so as probably the favorite to win the league. Missouri and Kentucky are the other primary contenders, and both have more issues than Florida: Missouri's never played in the SEC before, and doesn't know tendencies as well, while Kentucky is young and raw, and deficient at point guard. The Gators are experienced, talented, and theoretically hungry, with Kenny Boynton telling ESPN's Andy Katz that "Anything less than the Final Four will be a failure."
It will be up to the Gators to make good on the promises of their talent. But here's what I think we've learned about them from their non-conference play.
Depth is a strength
Last year's Florida team was almost comically reliant on six players at the end of its season: Erving Walker, Boynton, and Bradley Beal were the guards, Patric Young and Erik Murphy were the frontcourt, Scottie Wilbekin was the first guy off the bench, and everyone else was hoping for a blowout that would free up time. That made sense then, especially with Will Yeguete hurt, Casey Prather still working his way into the rotation, Mike Rosario's inconsistency far more pronounced, and Wilbekin's offensive game being very limited, but seems like a completely different time now: the frontcourt's the same, but Rosario's a starter, and a good one, and so is Wilbekin, and Yeguete and Prather are sixth man-caliber reserves. And Michael Frazier II is an ace in the hole when Florida needs perimeter offense.
I think that's Donovan's rotation, more or less in order, though I think we're going to see more Wilbekin at point guard throughout SEC play, and I think that Florida's better for it than it was when tired guards were taking jumpers against Louisville. Speaking of...
Scottie Wilbekin needs to be the point guard
Only two Florida teams in the Ken Pomeroy era (since 2002-03) have been in the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency at the end of the year, and both won national titles. Today, Florida sits at No. 6 in offensive efficiency, and No. 10 in defensive efficiency — and though the offensive efficiency is expected (Florida's been lower than No. 14 in offensive efficiency twice, in 2008-09 and 2009-10), the defensive efficiency is a pleasant surprise. Wilbekin's got a lot to do with it.
There's one obvious reason for that: He's taller than Erv and Kenny, and he can contest more shots because of it. But Wilbekin's also a heady, crafty defender, with active hands and good technique, and he can be a pest either in the press or the half court. He's good at swiping the ball (3.9 percent steal percentage, 126th nationally), and good at defending without fouling (just 2.4 fouls committed per 40 minutes), and he allows Boynton to guard smaller point guards if necessary, rather than forcing Donovan to find someone to hide a 5'7" point guard on and take a risk with a 6'0" guy on the shooting guard.
But that's not the only thing Wilbekin does as a point guard: He also frees Boynton on offense, and allows him to do the running around and coming off screens that makes him lethal. There's not a ton of difference between Wilbekin and Boynton's capabilities as distributors (and Rosario isn't getting mentioned here because I believe Donovan would rather be entirely bald than play Rosario at the point and hasten that hair loss), but there is a big difference between what the two can do as catch-and-shoot snipers, and it just doesn't make sense for Boynton to be feeding Wilbekin in the ball in that case. Florida used Wilbekin at the point and Boynton at the two a lot on Sunday against Yale, and Scottie racked up 10 assists while Kenny bombed eight threes. That's good enough play in a small sample size to make it something worth adopting going forward.
Kenny Boynton being good can make Florida great
Speaking of Boynton: When he's on, I firmly Florida has two of the top 20 shooters in the country. Erik Murphy's in that rarefied air, too, but Murphy can't create his own threes: Boynton's a threat to pull up for a heat check and run off a 6-0 run at any time he's running hot.
But that running hot thing is always the trick with Kenny. His eight threes against Yale were the most of his career, and gave him Florida's school record for threes, but he'd made seven of 39 threes in the six games before that night. It's not unheard of for Boynton to have cold spells (he went 8-for-35 in the last six games of the 2011-12 season, and 7-for-36 in one six-game stretch in 2010-11), but it was worrisome that he was taking threes almost exclusively in those games, attempting just 16 two-pointers in the month of December. Contrary to Donovan's worry that he was taking over 60 percent of his shots from three — 62.4 percent of Boynton's shots have been from three in 2012-13 ... and 63.5 percent were from three in 2011-12 — Boynton's ideal mix of twos and threes is probably right around a 60-40 split if he's hitting threes at or around a 35 percent clip; when he's lower than that, Boynton should look to drive more, especially as a fantastic free throw shooter (78.6 percent in his career, and 86.4 percent this season) who can do good things even if he can't get the ball in the basket.
Boynton's been inconsistent at best and bad on offense at worst so far this year, and Florida's been very good despite it. When he has his shot working, Florida can bee great.
Casey Prather might be really good
Prather doesn't play quite enough to make these numbers more than promising figures within the penumbra of a small sample size, but he's:
Those numbers make more sense if you know how Florida uses Prather (mostly as a demonic defender in its press and a terrifying finisher in transition), how Florida keeps the ball out of his hands as much as possible on offense, and how Prather has limited himself to a diet of dunks and little else. But those roles require a spectacularly athletic and hard-working player to be executed this well, and Prather fits the bill. I think he'll get more playing time as the Gators work deeper into the SEC schedule.
Patric Young is good at rebounding — on offense
The one thing that can't really be explained by Prather's role in that list is his offensive rebounding, which is stellar because of, loosely, "want-to." Patric Young's is better than Prather's, and better than Will Yeguete's (which was superb in his first two years), because he marries that "want-to" with the frame and athleticism of a potentially dominant rebounder. And you can get away with effort and athleticism as a rebounder ... on offense.
Young is not so good on defense, with a defensive rebounding percentage (16.0 percent) that ranks behind Yeguete's, Frazier's, and Braxton Ogbueze's among Florida players, right in line with where his own was for the last two years, and nowhere near the nation's best marks. That's because defensive rebounding requires a slightly different skill set, with a little more finesse and a lot more smarts. Yeguete's really good at it (over 21 percent in all three of his seasons), because he understands positioning really well; Young is not, because he doesn't, and because he is better at reacting than planning on defense. (You can also see this in how many times he falls for the first half of a double move in the post — watch tonight for that and tell me I'm wrong.)
There's time for Young to figure that out, still, but I'm not exactly optimistic he'll have an epiphany and become a great defensive rebounder.
Poor shooting nights are better than poor defensive nights
Florida's two nights allowing over 100.0 Offensive Efficiency are, not coincidentally, its only losses. Those nights were also Florida's worst (Kansas State) and third-worst (Arizona) nights in terms of offensive efficiency, but Florida shot worse against Savannah State (the Gators' 41.7 effective field goal percentage that night was their worst since ugly road trips to Georgia and Kentucky last February), and won that game comfortably because it played very well on defense.
Defense is more reliable than offense, especially for a team dependent on the three like Florida is, because the blueprint for strong defense is effort and discipline, while missing shots just sort of happens. Billy Donovan knows really well that defense is more reliable than offense, having won two titles with it, and this team that failed to defend leads against Butler and Louisville and Arizona when the offense dried up should know it like Ryan Lochte knows Midtown. It's up to them to prove it.
At its best, Florida can win it all
This is probably the most heartening lesson learned: Florida's really good, even when it's not playing its best. Arizona needed a total collapse from the Gators to win by a single point at home; Kansas State never fully put away Florida despite leading for almost the entirety of the game. And those games were both basically on the road, and further from Gainesville than the Gators' likely subregional (Austin, Dayton, and Lexington) and regional (Arlington, Tex., and Washington, D.C.) destinations are closer than Tucson and Kansas City are.
Duke and Indiana are both probably better than Florida; Louisville, Syracuse, Michigan, and Kansas are likely in the Gators' stratum. Those are seven teams that I would be very much unsurprised to see cutting down the nets in April, and which one I'd favor to do that probably relies in part on how easy their road to Atlanta ends up being.
Florida can pave a path to a No. 1 or No. 2 seed by playing really well in the SEC, and there are reasons to believe it can — and maybe should — do that, and go all the way as a result.
But it all begins tonight. And before the Gators go to Atlanta, they've got to go through the SEC.
See? Basketball's just like football.