Florida vs. Tennessee: How will the Gators' rotation work with Michael Frazier out?

USA TODAY Sports

Michael Frazier's absence limits what Florida will be able to do on the road at Tennessee. How should Billy Donovan manage his rotation?

Florida not having Michael Frazier II for Tuesday night's game against Tennessee is a bad blow to the Gators' offense — of course, that would be easy to say of any player who makes nearly two threes per game. But Frazier's also given Florida some extra flexibility throughout the 2012-13 season, and with him and Will Yeguete both out, Florida's normal eight-man rotation has shrunk to six players.

Donovan has leaned heavily on those eight players — Frazier, Yeguete, Casey Prather, and the starting five of Scottie Wilbekin, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy, and Patric Young — all season, with each playing 288 minutes or more and no other Gators topping 100 minutes.

But just two of the eight, Boynton and Wilbekin, average more than 30 minutes per game, and only Boynton is playing more than 80 percent of Florida's minutes. Florida's been able to ride its horses all season without riding any of them into the ground, and Boynton's stretch of heavy point guard usage that coincided with a deep shooting slump didn't actually correlate with extra time on the court: Boynton actually warmed up against Air Force and then broke out of the slump against Yale in games in which he played a combined 73 of 80 minutes.

Florida's dealt with the absence of every player except Young this year, but Frazier's injury is the first one that's going to tax Florida's backcourt rotation since Rosario's ankle sprain kept him out of Florida's win over LSU (in which Boynton and Wilbekin each topped 35 minutes), and it's the first one that comes at the same time as another injury since Prather (concussions) and Wilbekin (injury) were both unavailable against Wisconsin. That game provides an instructive lesson on what I expect to see Billy Donovan do tonight against Tennessee with freshmen DeVon Walker, Braxton Ogbueze, and Dillon Graham.

In that game, Boynton, Rosario, Yeguete, Murphy, and Young started, and they started hot, racing out to a 9-0 lead and building that lead to 16-6 with Frazier's help (he was subbed in for Young after Young's first foul) before Walker, Ogbueze, and Young came in for Boynton, Yeguete, and Murphy at the 13:01 mark. Walker and Ogbueze would stay on the floor until just the 11:10 mark, as Florida ran its offense through Rosario and Young in the interim. The Florida lead also shrank from 16-6 to 21-15, with Young and Frazier each committing turnovers.

Florida actually got worse, briefly, with its starting five back on the floor, as three straight turnovers helped cut the advantage to 21-19 before a pair of Murphy jumpers — one assisted by Graham, who spelled Rosario for a minute — extended it to 25-19. Florida played its starting five with Frazier and Yeguete and Young sitting briefly for the next five minutes, and the lead grew again, to 11 points at 39-28, before Donovan subbed in Graham. Graham would play the final 3:39 of the half, eventually being joined by Walker for a defensive possession, and Florida would lead by 12 at halftime.

In the second half, with the lead in double digits throughout, Donovan's substitutions looked even more like stealing minutes: Walker spent 49 seconds on the court after a media timeout to give Yeguete a blow, then Ogbueze did a 20-second stint for Boynton just before another timeout. No non-Frazier freshman would enter the game again until Ogbueze came on for the final 42 seconds.

That was a tight game against a good team, one Florida needed its best players on the floor for long stretches to win. Walker, Graham, and Ogbueze combined for just 11 minutes in it, and that was without Wilbekin, not Frazier, who seems to me to be both better-conditioned than Frazier and more useful to the offense and defense.

It should also be noted that Donovan's substitutions were facilitated in part by having that lead, and by Florida's ability to stop the clock by drawing 20 free throws (Florida's high in SEC play is 19), and by Young and Murphy each effectively avoiding foul trouble.

Having a lead makes it easier to gamble on stealing minutes, because the worst that can happen is losing that lead, which is much preferred to falling into a bigger hole. Stopping the clock for free throws produces mini-timeouts on the court. And eeping two of Young, Murphy, and Yeguete on the floor at all times is ideal for Florida, because having just one on the floor will almost assuredly lead to a mismatch on defense in the post for someone; that gets harder when only two are healthy, though Prather's availability does give the Gators their best approximation of Yeguete.

If you want to see what happens when those things don't work out for Florida, look no further than the Gators' loss to Arkansas: Yeguete's injury early and Florida's sizable deficit from the jump led Donovan to play just the remaining seven players on his eight-man rotation for the entirety of the game, rather than give even a second to the non-Frazier freshmen. Florida didn't lose because it didn't play those freshmen, of course, but Donovan didn't play those freshmen because Florida was losing.

If Florida can build an early lead on Tennessee and stay out of foul trouble, expect to see Florida try to steal minutes here and there with Walker, Ogbueze, and Graham. If the Gators fall into a hole, I think it's more likely that they stick to their six best players available and give them all but a few of the minutes available.

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