USA TODAY Sports
Florida faced the best team that is not Florida in the SEC on Wednesday night. And Gators wiped the floor with the Kentucky Wildcats by sticking to their same foolproof formula.
Florida generally doesn't beat Kentucky, and rarer still is a big Florida win over its SEC rival. The full list of 15-point wins by Florida over Kentucky entering Tuesday night: The Gators beat the 'Cats by 15 twice in 2006, by 16 in 1965, by 17 in 1992, 2000, and 2005, and by 18 in 1968 and 1987.
Add Florida's 17-point margin of victory in its 69-52 win in the O'Dome to the list. And let's call it what it is: Florida showing that no team in the SEC is on its level.
Kentucky did what a few SEC teams have been able to do early against Florida by making the Gators sweat: It opened a quick 4-0 lead and got fouls on Patric Young and Erik Murphy before the under-16 timeout. That could have been the beginning to a big upset, or a close game. It wasn't.
Florida took back the lead at 5-4, and took it for good at 12-11 with 11:56 to go in the first half, and went from trailing and being tied at the first two TV timeouts to being up 36-20 at one point in the first half. The Gators then led by double digits for the entire second half, with the lead stretching to 19 points at multiple junctures.
Simply, Kentucky wasn't in Florida's class on Tuesday night. And that was true even with Nerlens Noel's phenomenal athleticism up front, before the Wildcats' great freshman went down on a block of Mike Rosario in the second half.
Noel had eight points, six rebounds, and three blocks, but he also had a devil of a time working against Young inside, as the Gators' big man had perhaps his best game as a Gator, and put together a defensive performance that foretells an NBA future.
Young has always had ridiculous strength and speed for a low post player, but his great addition this year has been patience, the sort that allows him to mirror taller players who are in his athletic class and frustrate them with savvy when he can't overwhelm them with his physicality. Young minimized both Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, essentially erased Alex Poythress (who made one of nine shots), and, though he had significant help from Murphy and other help defenders, held his ground like a concrete block with good footwork down low. Between the solid work on a possession-by-possession basis and his four blocks, Young's play went a long way in proving that Florida can get by without Will Yeguete on defense.
Young and the rest of the Gators also did very nice work on the boards. Noel got his six rebounds, and Willie Cauley-Stein had six, but Young had 11, and got them in just 24 minutes. And his 12 points came on a variety of different looks — including one beautiful lay-up earned by a run-out in transition. His offense is less important to Florida than his defense, and it's his defense that has made him a very good player in his junior season, but he's the only load Florida has in the low post, and the Gators need at least the threat of entry passes to Young to keep defenses from playing the three-point line alone.
Young was far above that baseline on Tuesday, and above his usual high standards on defense, as well. He was far from the only great sign of the night.
The best development of the 2013 season, for my money, has been Scottie Wilbekin's exceptional quickness, often his best asset on defense, being used as a weapon on offense. Wilbekin bedeviled Kentucky's guards all night, dribbling around screens and zipping to the basket or finding a recipient for a quick pass; Florida doesn't run offense that's more than vaguely similar to John Calipari's dribble-drive offense, but you would be forgiven if you thought that Wilbekin, and not any of the guards that Kentucky tried as ball handlers, was the next great floor general on the court. I thought Florida was going to struggle to create offense this season because I doubted Wilbekin's quickness, but I was very wrong about that, as it's actually become a strength.
And with that development as a penetrator, Wilbekin's game is without a major flaw. His defense was fine as ever, his shooting was typically good (he sank a three that he basically shot set from up top, which is something no other Florida player does), and his passing was excellent, with a showy lefty behind-the-back feed to Casey Prather among his eight assists. I think Wilbekin is Florida's most important player, but I'm also beginning to think he might be Florida's best: He alone seems assertive enough to consistently break down a defense off the dribble, and he alone seems to be fully trusted by Donovan to do so; he shoots better from three than Boynton and Rosario both; he's the best individual defender Florida has.
That's not bad for a two-star recruit who won't be able to buy a drink legally until the first day of the Final Four — in 2014. Of course, Scottie might be busy that day...
It's practically impossible to definitively pick what player is Florida's best, though, because a new one makes a case virtually every night. Tuesday night, Casey Prather made his as loudly as possible.
For the second straight year, he put a Wildcat on a poster, this time blowing by and dunking on Cauley-Stein, who is a legitimate seven feet tall.
But that was just the most photogenic thing he did.
Prather also made six of eight shots, leading Florida in makes and field goal percentage and earning a jaw-dropping 172 Offensive Rating (loosely, that means he was worth 1.72 points per possession), had three rebounds, two assists, and two blocks, and did heroic work as an undersized post defender, pestering his assignments and playing the sort of annoying defense that Yeguete does when he's available.
When Yeguete's available, everything Prather does is a luxury; when he isn't, Prather approximating him on one end or another is a necessity. 12 points, a few other box score numbers, and defense were more than was required, and didn't feel like Prather playing well above his head, even on the stunning spin move that led to a lay-up late. Prather's had the rep of a practice stalwart with all the athleticism in the world for two years now, but he was trapped behind Bradley Beal and Rosario last year, and has been trapped behind Rosario and Yeguete this year; his concussions early in the season also allowed Yeguete to take a larger role in Florida's rotation.
But Beal is gone and the concussions are in the past, and Prather is now poised to be Florida's secret weapon and then some for the rest of the season. He's versatile in a way that no other Gator is, as a terrifying athlete on the perimeter on offense and a defender who can guard anyone from the two to the five — which he is asked to do when Florida rolls out its warp-speed "Swamp Swarm" (I'm gonna make it happen, Regina) that uses four guards and Prather to steal minutes without Young and Murphy on the floor — and he is only likely to get better with more playing time.
Prather's still not the rebounder Yeguete is, but Florida doesn't have another rebounder as technically skilled, and he's not as tall as Yeguete is, but Florida doesn't have another 6'8" player, either. And he might just make the Gators good enough with Casey Prather that we don't have to think about them without Will Yeguete.
Boynton and Rosario are players who do almost the same things, and they've been linked in my head as high-volume gunners since I first looked up Rosario's Rutgers stats. But it's a testament to both players that they've cut down on the volume of shots and never raised their voices about it.
10 shots in a game would have been a rare quiet night for Rosario at Rutgers; now, it's basically his withdrawal limit, as he's exceeded 10 shots just five times in 22 games this season, and exceeded 11 shots just thrice. Boynton came to Florida as the most prolific scorer in Florida high school basketball since Teddy Dupay, but he's actually taken fewer shots per game in each successive season with the Gators, weaning himself from 12.9 per contest as a freshman to just 10.4 per game this season.
They're no less dangerous for that discretion, of course: While Boynton's not going to match his fire-is-jealous shooting from last season, both are shooting respectable percentages from deep and taking better shots. And fewer bad shots (and, especially, fewer bad threes) means fewer busted possessions, fewer quick changes to transition defense, and better outcomes for everyone. The personal sacrifices each has made — Boynton could have been Florida's leading career scorer by some margin with more shots per game, but might not actually get there at his current senior season rate; Rosario obviously knew he wasn't going to be the sole merchant of offense like he was at Rutgers when he decided to transfer — have not been insignificant, personally, but they've been far more significant as contributions to a winning team.
Florida can turn to either guy if it ever needs a couple quick threes, and can trust both to not press for those quick threes (for the most part). It's rarer than you'd think for a shooter to be okay with holstering his weapon, and Florida having two should not go unnoticed.
Finally, there's the case of Erik Murphy, Florida's finest offensive player and one of college basketball's most efficient players. He's also perhaps Billy Donovan's best coaching job yet.
There's a section in Florida's 2012-13 media guide labeled "Growth From Beginning to End" that you probably wouldn't see if you weren't constantly scrolling through it to find this or that stat. Here it is:
Murphy's gone from averaging 3.5 points and 2.4 rebounds per game as a freshman to averaging 12.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a senior. And he's gone from being exclusively an interior player to being the most dangerous perimeter big in college basketball. And he's gone from wanting out and getting arrested to being a model senior. And he's gone from being a slow, skinny big to a future NBA player.
Murphy didn't and doesn't have the pure talent of Haslem, or Lee, or Parsons — or even Bonner, who in some respects is a smaller, faster Murphy. (Ironically, Bonner and Alex Murphy, Erik's Duke freshman brother, would seem to have similar skill sets, with the caveat that Bonner's involves actually making threes, despite Alex forging his own path and not following the New England pipeline that Bonner created and Erik extended.) And Murphy's not as good a rebounder as any of those guys, either. But Murphy's arguably more important to Florida this year than anyone but Parsons was in his senior season, and inarguably more efficient, because it's basically impossible to outdo a big who shoots almost 50 percent from three in that category.
Donovan got a kid who didn't know what he wanted to be when Murphy committed, and it took both coach and player more than two years to get him on the right track. Less than two years since then, Murphy is the best threat for a team threatening to win a title.
If it feels strange that I've written so much here without writing about Florida's defense, which was as absurd on Tuesday as it is absurd on nearly any night that doesn't feature impossible threes by the other side, that's by design: I save the best for last. "Luck is the residue of design" is one of the truisms I believe in, and that's worth paraphrasing for Florida's defense: Good defense, in basketball more than any other sport, is the residue of hard work.
You can be a decent individual defender on talent alone — Patric Young's freshman year is testament to that. You can be passable at defense with a bunch of fast or tall players who have no clue what they're doing; Kentucky's 2010 and 2011 defenses are testament to that. But watching Florida play now, or watching Kentucky play in 2012, or watching Louisville play for much of Rick Pitino's time in Cardinal red, I'm struck by how few mistakes are made on defense because of a lack of effort.
Florida made four or five, I thought, on Tuesday night: A poor rotation got Archie Goodwin a free lane for a baseline dunk early; a press that failed to react to Cauley-Stein well behind it led to an easy dunk; two or three bad closeouts led to two or three of Kentucky's four threes. That's five mistakes on five possessions, if I'm being generous, and they led to 13 Kentucky points.
The problem for Kentucky is that it scored just 39 points on the other 62 possessions. The problem for other teams Florida will face is that getting four or five mistakes and capitalizing on them is significantly more than Florida foes usually do.
In my preview, I wrote about the six worst defensive performances by Florida this year, ones that led to three losses, Florida's two closest home win, and another game that took two halves to win. Kentucky, despite shooting just 42 percent from the field, turned in a performance that slots in right above those six nights ... and still lost by 17 and trailed by double digits for every second of the second half.
In fairness to Florida, Kentucky's night was far more like the eighth-best (Wisconsin) and ninth-best (Yale) outings by other teams against the Gators than No. 6, as the Wildcats' 89 points per 100 possessions lags well behind No. 6 Mississippi's 96.7. But I'd also chalk up at least some of the difference between games like Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Yale and that subpar six, silly as it sounds, to deep threes and insane shooting by the other team. Certainly, those were both factors in each of Florida's three losses, but they were factors in the "close" games, too: Mississippi and UCF both punched well above their weight from long distance, and Air Force beat its season average from three despite being a top-25 team from deep.
If you can put pressure on Florida like Kentucky did underneath, that's great — it's still probably not going to get you a win. If you have shooters like Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer or Mississippi's Marshall Henderson or UCF's Kasey Wilson, that's going to tax Florida — but it won't be enough to beat the Gators.
Though I sound facetious when I say it on Twitter, I actually sort of believe this: The formula for beating Florida relies in part on a steady diet of NBA threes that go in, and Florida has to miss some of its threes, too. That's what happened in Arizona, and in Kansas City, and at Arkansas, three of Florida's four outings in which the Gators scored fewer than 1.1 points per possession all year and all three outings in which they've yielded more than a point per possessions.
If that seems really, really difficult to do: It is. Those three games had far, far more to do with shots falling and not falling than design that produces open shots or takes them away, and it's Florida's hard work on defense that has helped confine the outlier performances to three games. (Florida's efficiency on offense requires hard work, but that's put in at practice more than in games, where offensive execution seems to me to be more about focus.)
But Florida's got to know by now that its hard work pays off. Boynton and Murphy, Florida's two seniors, have played in 72 games in which the Gators have held their opponents to under a point per possession.
They've lost four of them. And they've lost them in each case because of bad offense — a Florida rarity, given that opponents have held the Gators under a point per possession just 24 times in those four years.
For Florida, defense, not offense, is the more reliable predictor of success — defense wins games is the succinct version. But in college basketball, with its six-game championship tournament that doubles as a tornado of variance, having a foolproof formula for winning games is the goal.
These Gators might have one. They merely have to keep working hard.