Wisconsin 59, Florida 53: Short-handed Gators earn a good loss

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Florida played eight men at Wisconsin, and just seven scholarship players. It lost by six. This was a good loss for the Gators.

Last night, at Wisconsin, Florida didn't have Kasey Hill at the end of the first or second half because of foul trouble. It played Jacob Kurtz for 21 minutes, a mono-weakened Michael Frazier II for 33, Casey Prather for 35. No Gator but Frazier, who led all scorers with 20 points, made a three; Florida shot 40.4 percent from the field.

But the Gators only lost to the Badgers by six in a hard-fought 59-53 game.

Yes, Florida built a surprising 16-4 lead early with the aid of three Frazier treys in a personal 9-0 run and some stifling defense. Yes, Florida frittered that lead away in the first half's final 7:55, which turned a 24-16 advantage to a 29-26 halftime deficit. No, the Gators never took back the lead in the second half, despite cutting it to one point twice, and to three points in the final minute.

But I genuinely thought Florida was going to struggle all game, and lose by 15 to 20 points. I didn't think Florida would ever have a lead to fritter away, or that the Gators would play a game that came down to the final minute. Traevon Jackson hit a really tough long two over Kurtz to put away the game, and, really, if Florida's gonna lose on the road to Wisconsin, I'm okay with the win being sealed by a difficult shot from a point guard that was well defended by a friggin' walk-on forward.

Seriously, watch the defense Kurtz plays after a switch at the 0:50 mark, and try to find a complaint.

Florida tried to do a lot of things, and found out that it struggles to do them without a point guard. Hill ran the point beautifully early, getting three of his four assists in that opening 16-4 run, and his fourth after athletically snagging a rebound and finding Prather on a no-look cross-body pass. But he committed his second foul of the first half on the next defensive possession, and headed to the bench. Florida stagnated for the rest of the half as a result.

Without Hill, and the suspended Scottie Wilbekin, there's no player accustomed to playing the point on the floor for these Gators, and the ball movement that's crucial to getting open shots in Billy Donovan's offense was nearly nonexistent at the end of the half. It was nearly nonexistent again at the end of the second half, after Hill fouled out with 3:25 to go, but there was nothing Florida could do about that last night: Eli Carter (who played 10 minutes and looked uncomfortable for all of them) is clearly not fully recovered from his broken leg, and isn't exactly a point guard when healthy; Frazier is not a point guard, though he can dribble; no one else on the active roster is even an above-average passer on the perimeter.

And that problem will largely be rectified when Wilbekin returns, and is unlikely to be an outcome-changing issue over Florida's next three games — Arkansas-Little Rock, Southern, and Middle Tennessee in the O'Dome are unlikely to give the Gators the issues Wisconsin did in the Kohl Center, and though Florida will struggle without Hill in the game, Donovan can experiment with different ball-handlers over those games, and maybe find a third guard to trust.

Were there elements of the "same old Gators," the ones that built leads and crumbled down the stretch over the last three years, on the court Tuesday night? Absolutely. Shots weren't falling, but Florida kept shooting, and didn't get inside as much as most would like to see, especially given Patric Young's presumed physical dominance. Young was uneven, benched early for defensive lapses and scoreless until the second half, though he finished with eight points and six rebounds. Florida made just 10 of 17 free throws, with Young missing three — and Hill, Frazier, and Kurtz each missing one.

And any time a loss is within a couple of possessions at the end, within the margin of a team's missed free throws, or a loss despite a big lead at some point in the game, the result is going to be painful. I get all that.

But there were elements of the same new Gators I saw in 2012-13 on display, too. Florida played excellent defense for most of the game despite Young's lapses, and pressed effectively despite its limited roster. Prather had 12 points and five rebounds, and though he also had five turnovers, he's still clearly going to be a major presence for Florida all year. Will Yeguete, also still pretty clearly recovering from his off-season knee surgery, scrapped all night, and made all three of his shots and both of his free throws. Frazier was as deadly from deep as he was for much of last year.

This is a loss that will sting for a little while today, but it's the last game we'll see the outrageously undermanned Gators play, as Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris will both be available on Saturday. It will hurt the Gators very, very marginally, if at all, when NCAA Tournament selection time comes around, because Wisconsin is a good team and road games at good teams are rare, much less wins in those games. It revealed a major issue for this outfit, a lack of point guard depth, early enough to work it out, and revealed that Young's got to continue working on his consistency and effort.

It was a good loss, in other words. And in college basketball, those can be valuable.

The comments are yours.

Star-divide

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

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