Florida is looking to play with fire against LSU on Friday (1 p.m., ESPNU or ESPN3). In a good way.
That's the common thread in everything Billy Donovan's said this week, and something that Will Yeguete and Patric Young have echoed: The Gators' passion, so crucial to their defense and so evident in the two dozen Florida wins on the year, has been lacking lately, and needs to return.
That's got more to do with Yeguete and Young than anyone else: Yeguete's slow return from knee surgery has left him largely robbed of the inexhaustible supply of athleticism that powers his hustle, and Young's increased workload against better big men in the last few weeks has sapped him of some of his hustle, which is the key to Florida going from very good to great. And if the fire is going to come from anyone else, it will probably be Casey Prather: Scottie Wilbekin, Kenny Boynton, and Mike Rosario are steady or shaky, rarely as fiery as Yeguete, Young, and Prather can be, and Erik Murphy's roundhouse punches are trailer threes.
But, in honesty, Florida doesn't need that fire to be a good team, just a great one: Because the Gators are so good and the SEC so middling, they can go through the motions and do enough to win games, even by double digits, without having to hit a high gear. That's arguably happened with distressing frequency — coasting to big wins doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, and tends to bore.
If it ends today at the SEC Tournament, with Florida starting strong and dispatching a feisty LSU team, look out.
Florida should be able to out-talent LSU, and did essentially that in Baton Rouge in a 74-52 win in January: A 35-8 run that bridged the end of the first half and beginning of the second broke open a game that LSU led 17-15, and struggles with LSU's press late didn't prevent the Gators from winning their first SEC road game.
Of course, Florida got unusual production in that game, with Rosario out with a sprained ankle: Boynton made four threes in that game, a number he's matched just twice since, and Yeguete had 10 points, a number he's topped just once since.
The problem for LSU on this Friday is that Rosario is back, and star Tigers forward Johnny O'Bryant might not be 100 percent, especially after an awful game against Georgia on Thursday (the breakdown of his 12 points: 3-for-13 on twos, and 6-for-17 on free throws). And while Florida's defense is taxed by taller guards, neither Anthony Hickey (5'11") nor Andre Stringer (5'9") is going to tower over a Gator.
Florida should win this game, no matter its effort level. So it's really the effort level, and not the result, I'm looking for.
I know people are stuck in class and at work today, so I'm gonna be really descriptive here in the game thread, with regular score updates: It's gonna be more like a live blog than anything. And the tweets will flow, too.