Florida vs. Wisconsin, Game Thread: Embracing the underdog Gators

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida's probably going to lose to Wisconsin tonight, and may lose badly. But that's okay, and might even be fun.

I'm pretty sure Florida's going to lose to Wisconsin tonight. (The game's at 9 p.m., and on ESPN2, or on ESPN3 if you have a cable subscription.)

Florida, after all, has just 10 players available, two of whom are walk-ons. One of the scholarship players, Michael Frazier II, is still recovering from mononucleosis; another, Will Yeguete, looked tentative in his first non-exhibition game back from offseason knee surgery; a third, Eli Carter, was nearly nonexistent in his first non-exhibition game since a broken leg suffered this February.

The other, healthy and eligible players — Dillon Graham, Kasey Hill, Casey Prather, DeVon Walker, and Patric Young — looked uneven against North Florida last Friday. Graham missed both of his shots, and played just eight minutes; walk-on Jacob Kurtz got 26, and looked like a better player. Hill was as billed, an electric point guard with some elite skills, but a lack of defensive discipline sent him to the bench early. Prather was the revelation, pouring in a career-high 28 points and snaring eight rebounds while looking for all the world like a dangerous, swooping wing player with the wingspan of a forward. Walker looked almost indistinguishable from Frazier — Walker has bulked up; Frazier's illness has clearly thinned his frame — except for the former's lack of offensive chops. Young was a disappointment, losing his assignments inside routinely on defense and producing just two points — the game's first, and both on free throws.

Taken as a whole, Florida's performance wasn't more exciting than the sum of its parts. The Gators built a 37-20 lead, then frittered it away with careless defense at the end of the first half to enter the locker room up just six; after building back to a 58-39 edge in the second half, North Florida made another late run fueled by threes to cut the final margin to eight points. It was Florida's first win by fewer than 10 points since the 2012 SEC Tournament, and a great indication that these Gators can't yet apply fatal pressure to even the likes of North Florida.

Wisconsin is better than North Florida.

The team that Florida subdued with brilliant shooting last fall in the O'Connell Center was a Wisconsin team in flux, and without the point guard that Traevon Jackson became by year's end. Jackson's big, physical, and capable of bullying Hill if he needs to.

The team that Florida beat got a lot better by the end of the year, and Sam Dekker had a lot to do with it: The freshman became strong both inside and from the perimeter by the end of last year, and opened up many opportunities for Jared Berggren and Ben Brust. Dekker's still around, as is Brust, but Berggren is gone; in his place is Frank Kaminsky, a towering 6'11" center who was more efficient than Berggren in less work last season.

The team that Florida beat also didn't have Josh Gasser, a guard who suffered a torn ACL before the 2012-13 season began, or Duje Dukan, whose mononucleosis forced a redshirt last year. Both are good players, and Gasser was superb in 2012-13, hitting threes at a 45.2 percent clip.

This Wisconsin team, I think, is going to be "the team that beat Florida."

And, well, I'm fine with that.

Florida's season is, once again, smartly front-loaded with non-conference rigor, but its best chances at big wins come in December, when it sees Kansas at home, Memphis in New York City, and UConn in Storrs. This November road trip to Wisconsin was always going to be a tough ask for the Gators — Wisconsin's only home loss in November in the last decade came last year, against Virginia, while those Badgers were finding their footing — and got tougher with the suspensions handed down to Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris, and Scottie Wilbekin, which rob Florida of significant depth, talent, and defensive versatility. I would have expected a close game, and a tight loss, with those players available; I expect a rout tonight, given the actual circumstances.

A rout wouldn't hurt these Gators, a bunch no one expected to go undefeated. A loss to a good team on the road, especially early in the year, is usually not even a bad loss, and one that lives with these players as they walk into the Madison cold on the way back to the airport might serve as motivation. (An early road loss with more than half of Florida's roster recovering or back in Florida? The impact will be infinitesimal.) Virtually no one's going to be watching Wisconsin-Florida, anyway, except during the commercial breaks of the phenomenal Champions Classic twinbill of Michigan State-Kentucky and Duke-Kansas, so few but the diehards are going to see what could be a mightily struggling Florida team.

And expecting a loss would just make the upset win much sweeter. It's rare to think of Florida as an underdog, but this Florida team is — and if nothing else, enjoying being an underdog is worth trying on as a novel experience, fellow Gators.

So, yeah, go Gators. But don't be surprised if the Gators come home with a loss.

Star-divide

Andy Hutchins is Alligator Army's managing editor. Follow Alligator Army on Twitter and Facebook.

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