The Differences is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of a similar name at The Two-Man Game, and makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about games the Gators recently played.
Today, we're writing about Florida's 69-59 win at Kentucky on Saturday night, the Gators' first win at Rupp Arena since 2007. It will be fun.
Florida 69, Kentucky 59
Kentucky's Andrew Harrison tipped in a shot with 11:13 to go in the second half on Saturday night, putting the Wildcats up 45-38. From that point on, Florida outscored Kentucky 31-14, scoring at least one point on each of its next 14 possessions and putting up a magnificent, mammoth, mind-blowing 2.21 points per possession during that stretch. (I've seen 2.38 points per possession, too, but it was 14 possessions, not the 13 that would produce that number.)
If a team is scoring 1.25 points per possession over any significant span in a game, that team is basically scoring as well as the very best offenses in the country score over full games. Florida outdid that generally accepted gold standard, did so on the road before the most hostile crowd it sees annually, did so against a team with multiple future NBA players, did so despite Kentucky giving nine minutes to players shorter than 6'5" and boasting excellent per-possession numbers of its own coming into Saturday's game.
And it did so by about a full point per possession.
I thought 45-38 looked familiar during the game, but I wasn't entirely sure why until I checked the play-by-play for Florida's 61-57 loss at Rupp last year — the one I pored over again on Saturday while writing about the elusiveness of a win at Rupp. Kentucky led by that exact same score last year with 13:39 to play in the second half, at which point Mike Rosario made a pair of free throws after a shooting foul, Kentucky's fourth of the half.
Those free throws were the first part of an 8-0 run that got Florida the lead, and the greater 19-5 run that gave Florida a 57-50 edge with 7:36 to go. Florida would give up an 11-0 run and fail to score in that final 7:36 en route to its loss, but the Gators were very much capable of fighting back at Rupp, even last year — they just couldn't hold the lead.
That was not the case on Saturday night. The Gators put together a 13-3 run to get the game back in their hands at 51-48 when the under-eight media timeout came, and though James Young made two free throws to get the game to 51-50 — another repeat score from 2013 — and Aaron Harrison popped in his first bucket of the night, a three, to knot the game at 53-53, Kentucky was destined to never lead again. Casey Prather made two free throws to answer Harrison's triple, and Florida steadily built and defended its lead — 60-55, 62-57, 64-57, 66-59 — until Scottie Wilbekin found Prather with a just-trying-to-break-this-press-really pass, and Prather beat everyone down the floor, laid it in, and made the and-one free throw to secure the 69-59 advantage that would be the final score line.Bad luck in terms of refereeing will befall all of us in time. It got both teams last night.Kentucky fouled Florida nine times between the moment it went up 45-38 and the end of the game, and Florida made 15 of the 17 free throws it took during that span — which were all of the free throws it attempted in the second half. It was a sea change from last year's contest at Rupp, in which Kentucky went an incredible 12:13 of game clock without being whistled for a single foul after taking its 45-38 lead, was only whistled once in the last 13:37 of the game (for an offensive foul), "allowed" zero free throw attempts in that span, and made six of its final eight free throws to finish its game-winning 11-0 run without making a field goal in the final 4:07 of play.
If a Kentucky fan complains about the officiating in this game to you, you have my blessing — heck, you may have the responsibility — to point that person to this item, and remind that benighted Big Blue Nation citizen that bad luck in terms of refereeing will befall all of us in time.
One last note on the refereeing, and I promise I'll get to the more fun parts of this game: It was really bad for both teams, but actually cost Florida two points on an obviously clean Patric Young putback dunk in the first half, and didn't "cost" Kentucky anything in the second half; Florida still had to make all of those free throws it earned. And Kentucky at least got free throws in the final 13 minutes of this game: Aaron Harrison had two that could have cut Florida's lead to 62-59 with just under three minutes to play, but he bricked them both.
John Calipari's inexplicable technical foul proved to be pivotal, too. Kentucky was leading 48-47 at that point, but Wilbekin promptly made both free throws, Prather got a layup on the subsequent possession, and Florida erased the Wildcats' last lead of the night. I don't think it was quite a tipping point for calls going against Kentucky — the very next foul of the game was actually on Florida, and James Young made two free throws after it — even though Kentucky got whistled on Florida's next three possessions, but it definitely gave the Gators a little breathing room, and that didn't help at a juncture when the team that really needed the air was Kentucky.
Florida's usually suffocating defense couldn't make Kentucky do much more than breathe hard while scoring in the first half. Only a strong final two minutes, in which Florida sucked up two possessions' worth of clock with a timely offensive rebound, made two two-pointers, and forced two Kentucky misses, prevented the Wildcats from having a sizable lead at the half. And there was really not much to do but credit Kentucky for that, something Billy Donovan did after the game.
After what felt to me like bad Florida defense helped Kentucky get its 7-2 start, the Wildcats started playing some very good offense against the Gators' excellent defense, throwing in unusual shots like a 10-foot baseline floater and a three from Julius Randle (who had taken 11 threes on the season entering this game) to go with smart ball movement and exploitation of Florida inside. And when the other team makes the shots Florida wants it to take — two-point jumpers and threes from post players count — then the only thing fans can really do is hope that the shots stop falling at some point, and/or that Florida can match the shot-making on the offensive end.
The latter is what happened last night: Kentucky didn't fall off much in the second half, and both made more threes and a better percentage of its threes, but Florida made 12 of its 20 two-pointers, two of its four threes, and the aforementioned 15 of 17 free throws. That's a superb 65.0 percent mark in Effective Field Goal Percentage, and that alone is really good; factoring in the free throws, as one must, Florida scored an insane 1.46 points per possession in the second half, far more than making up for its 0.93 PPP in the first period and getting the Gators to 1.19 PPP for the night as a whole.
Yes, the Gators played their customary excellent defense in this game — Kentucky scored 1.02 PPP, its new low in SEC play — but they really won it by playing a magisterial brand of offense, the kind that had been rare of late. And it wasn't just that incredible string of consecutive possessions with points, either.
For this, we have Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin to thank.
Prather was more or less the player we've seen terrorize foes all year in Lexington, scoring 24 points on nine shots (he made eight) and grabbing four steals — all but the last of which, literally the last recorded play of the game, led immediately to two-pointers. He swooped and scored repeatedly, one time getting to the rim from the wing so quickly that Dakari Johnson didn't make it across the lane to contest his shot, and made a face-up jumper early that helped buy him space later in the game. The wrinkle was doing this against Kentucky, a team that he had memorably baptized twice, but never before scarred; by scoring more points Saturday night than the 20 he scored in his six previous games against Kentucky combined, I'd say he left a keloid.Casey Prather scored more points against Kentucky last night than in his six previous games against the 'Cats combined.And, uh, Prather wasn't Florida's best offensive player — that was Wilbekin, setting a career high for points for the second consecutive game by putting up 23 at Rupp just four days after scoring 21 in Knoxville. He made just five of his 10 shots, but two of those makes were threes, both of them ice-veined shots to cut Kentucky's lead to a single possession, and the other three, all in the second half, opened Florida's scoring for the half, capped the Gators' 8-2 run to begin the half, and answered Kentucky's 6-0 response to that run, respectively.
Scottie wouldn't make a shot in the final nine minutes of play, not from the field; he would do his damage from the line, making nine free throws in the period, starting 11-for-11 from the line before missing his last free throw of the night, a minimally consequential one that would have put Florida up eight, not seven, with under a minute to play.
By that point, the Gators' two stars had shone so brightly that some Kentucky fans, loyal to a fault, had started streaming to the exits — sub-freezing temperatures awaited in the Lexington night, but I can't blame Kentucky fans for not wanting to see more of the Gator Boys being hot on a night like this. And, hey, the fans who left early missed the final Wilbekin-to-Prather connection for a brilliant and-one that was the game's final scoring play: They saved themselves that last bit of pain.
Wilbekin's senior season is perhaps the best argument there will ever be for coming in from the cold and embracing Donovan's coaching and teaching. He's clearly refocused himself on playing as well as he possibly can for his teammates, and his one glaring flaw, a tendency to freelance a bit when things break down — because he knows he's this team's only reliable dribble penetrator, and thinks he can get his shot — is also the thing that allows him to size up defenses and launch those threes that my brain tells me are fine shots from a fine shooter despite my gut churning from launch 'til swish.
Wilbekin hasn't totally erased his rep as a wild child — one earned with two years of relentless defense on the court and a few years of the kind of living that got him suspensions to open the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons — and so he still gets dinged by tweets like this one from ESPN's John Gasaway, really one of the five college basketball writers whose analysis I value most.
Words you don't want to hear if you're a Florida fan: "Wilbekin's got to make a play."— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) February 16, 2014
Gasaway sent that in the first half, and was proven spectacularly wrong in about an hour — much like every critic of Wilbekin has been this year, just with the fast forward on.
I stand corrected: 23 points, 11-of-12 @ the line, 0 turnovers. Scottie Wilbekin, I salute you!— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) February 16, 2014
Wilbekin's proved me wrong, too. I was so, so wrong about my hunch that Kasey Hill would come bogart his job and minutes during his suspension. But I have advantages on national writers when it comes to knowing the Gators, whether they lie in watching every minute of these games, some in person and some on TV, or knowing how to interpret what gets said by Donovan and others about this team.
And that makes it easier for me to appreciate how, in just less than a year, Wilbekin's gone from the doghouse, where Donovan was giving him the options of transferring, hopping through a bunch of hoops to come back to the Gators, or being banished, to the penthouse, where he sits as the leader of what will be nation's No. 2 team and no less than a co-favorite for the SEC Player of the Year Award.
Wilbekin is still young, painfully so, and is on his third chance of sorts in life with months to go before his 21st birthday, which arrives on April 5. Maybe he'll be able to have his first legal drink and celebrate a truly inspiring redemption story on the same day.
But it seems increasingly likely that he'll have to wait at least a few days before really enjoying his first legal adult beverage — the 2014 Final Four commences on April 5, after all.
Here is a chart.
2013-14 Stats Player A Player B Points per game 13.0 11.9 Assists per game 3.7 5.6 Rebounds per game 2.8 3.3 Steals per game 1.6 2.1 Turnovers per game 1.8 1.5 Field goal percentage 39.0% 42.7% Three-point field goal percentage 39.1% 36.5% Free throw percentage 74.8% 75.0% Offensive Rating 113.8 118.5
More recently, in two games from February 11 to February 15, Player A averaged 22.0 points, 4.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 0.0 turnovers per game; over the same time frame, Player B averaged 11.0 points, 5.0 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and 3.0 turnovers per game.
Player A is Scottie Wilbekin. Player B is Syracuse's ballyhooed point guard, Tyler Ennis. And none of those stats convey what Wilbekin — the quarterback of Florida's defense and its best individual defender — and Ennis — who has been hidden well as an individual defender by Syracuse's menacing 2-3 zone — to their respective defenses, though a chart also can't account for the hype Ennis gets as a preternaturally calm player in crunch time, or the bonus Winner's Halo he wears as the point guard for an undefeated team who does things like make half-court buzzer-beater game-winners.
I think Ennis is clearly a marginally better offensive player, but given the differences in defensive acumen, role, and teammates, I would lean toward Wilbekin as a better player. Despite my bias, I think it's a sound argument.
Circling back to Kentucky fans leaving early: I am so, so glad that no one in Florida's senior class did the same.
Prather and Wilbekin are well-covered above, but they made senior plays all night, and combined on one — an incredible slick behind-the-back drop pass from Wilbekin for an easier Prather lay-up in transition — that looked like a play you expect NBA players to occasionally make. (It's somehow not in these highlights.) Prather's rebound between four Kentucky players, on which he went up like a leather-seeking missile, was another grown man's move.Florida's seniors starred, but this was "great beats very good," not "old beats young."Young and Will Yeguete joined their classmates in making senior plays. Young's were two three-point plays converted from tough shots — including a Kareem-esque running hook over Randle — for six of his 10 points early in the second half, and a handful of rebounds (four offensive, matching Randle's haul) that he just ripped away from Wildcats. Yeguete's were quieter, as he scored just one point on the night, but he had four rebounds, two assists — one on the crucial pass that set up Michael Frazier II's lone three of the night — two steals, Florida's only block, and got a jump ball that gave Florida possession. Yeguete's big nights are rarer and rarer since his knee surgery last spring, but he's never giving less than 100 percent, and always making a difference, whether or not he's scoring or putting up numbers.
It's easy to draw a contrast between those steely seniors and Kentucky's coltish freshmen. Maybe too easy: Kentucky didn't quite panic, but the Wildcats never quite took this game for their own, despite looking like the better team for much of the first half, and playing like Florida's equal through the first 10 minutes of the second half. Florida just played better, making more shots and more good decisions and more free throws and so on; this wasn't "old team beats young team" so much as it was "great team beats very good team," I think.
And, after three years of watching really good Florida teams play really good basketball, but flail more often than I would like in do-or-lose moments, this team has earned my faith in their ability to come through time and again by, er, coming through time and again. I had that faith in last year's Gators, and it was never fully rewarded, certainly not in a close game. These Gators, and these seniors in particular, have rewarded it over and over.
I like these Gators better.
It seems the nation is just about to wake up to the idea that this team is special and dangerous and fun and likeable — that's what the flurry of columns and posts about Florida since the final horn on Saturday night indicates, anyway.
Those columns largely will not be wrong, either. Florida is the national title contender — maybe the favorite — that some will assert it is in the coming days, and is the battle-tested bunch others will laud it as, and is a great testament to the value of finding a great coach who can build a program instead of letting a hired gun assemble a team or two. But, as people on this Florida beat can tell you, none of that wasn't true before Saturday night; the only thing that really changed about Florida with the win was the appetite for columns like that from fans who really and truly believe at this point, and have hopped fully on the bandwagon.
Think of bandwagon fans what you will. I vaguely remember Rollie Massimino, or some other old Big East coach of some repute, giving a great shrugging quote about them in a book that I would probably remember better if I were not writing this in the depths of night. But know that they will certainly crank the volume knob on the conversation on Florida.
That might well help
august and generally infallibleoutlets like ESPN — which has used Florida State's logo in place of Florida's, misidentified Michael Frazier II as Casey Prather, used the outdated Gator Head logo (I really need to write out my frustrations about that somewhere) in graphics, and gotten the final score of a game it broadcast wrong in a tweet that has been retweeted more than a thousand times over the last 48 hours.
My guess, though, is that it will do more to empower people who think Florida is what it was against Kentucky and nothing else — the casual college basketball fans who will tune in for a primetime game on a snowy Saturday in February, but couldn't tell you the first thing about what happened when Florida visited Wisconsin in November, and the columnists who do great impressions of those fans. It's understandable, given recency biases and short attention spans, for fans to do that.We’d never heard the silence. But we love the silence. — Casey Prather
But Florida's been so good for so long over this year and last year that I've been able to fashion #KeepSleeping into a catch-all for slights of Florida — and there have been many. And, more importantly, it feels to me like Florida's players have taken all that to heart, accepted that there is little they can do, other than win a national championship, to reshape their narrative on their own.
Prather gave one of the quotes of the season to GatorZone's Chris Harry — whose writings on Florida for GatorZone have been as essential to understanding this team as his begging for Twitter followers is off-putting — but gave it in the context of Florida finally putting a lid on the din in Rupp.
"We’d never heard the silence," senior forward Casey Prather said after handing UK just its third home loss in the last five years. "But we love the silence."
Florida has operated in something close to silence for much of this season, like a parliament of owls or a pack of panthers — panthers are solitary animals, but work with me — stalking prey without as much as a whisper in the night. Occasionally — in a game against Kansas or Memphis or Arkansas or Kentucky — the predators have to do their work in the open, and that's okay; occasionally — in a game against Tennessee or Texas A&M or Georgia — those predators make a mess while devouring particularly juicy prey. Even though everyone should know to fear them by now — Florida's been the No. 3 team in the country for about three full weeks — the predators still get to stalk in relative secrecy.
There will be some backlash over attention the next couple of weeks, if Florida keeps winning, from fans who will feel less connected to a team that Janie and Johnny and the rest of the Comelately brood fell in love with on Saturday night. The bandwagoneering's fine; these Gators really deserve the attention they will get almost precisely because they haven't sought it, content as they are to love their silence.
But I also wouldn't worry about pressure one way or the other. Florida may love silence, but it's nursing a six-game road win streak against SEC teams that included trips to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The Gators seem to be all right with cacophony.
Florida's level of dominance last night on offense was not quite historic, but it was close to it — it was in the proximity of history, we'll say.
The Gators' 1.19 points per possession are the most any team's scored at Rupp this season, and second only to Texas A&M's 1.32 points per possession in 2013 — fueled by a 40-point night from Elston Turner that Calipari joked "felt like 60!" in a College GameDay interview Saturday morning — at Rupp in Calipari's five seasons at Kentucky. Kentucky's 1.02 PPP were its fewest this season.
The 1.19 PPP is also Florida's third-best performance on offense against Kentucky in the KenPom era, slotting in between a top three that happened entirely in 2006 and 2007. The 10-point win was just Florida's fourth double-digit win at Rupp in program history, and, for the first time ever, Florida hasn't had to go more than 10 years between them with the most recent one coming in 2006.
And, uh, I think Florida can actually play better.
The one thing we precious few diehard Florida basketball fans seem to know about this season that the national media has had trouble grasping is that these Gators are not their predecessors when it comes to shooting threes — an understanding backed up by Florida's 34.1 percent mark from distance this season to date, which has this team on pace to become just the second Florida team 1 to shoot worse than 35.0 percent from three under Donovan.
Florida usually compensates for that by eviscerating opposing defenses inside and on the offensive glass, but didn't do a particularly good job of that against Kentucky, given the towering Wildcats waiting for Gators to drive to the hoop, and shot below its averages from three, making just three of 13 shots. Florida making 22 of 28 free throws is a promising surge toward the 70 percent mark that usually serves as a dividing line between "good" and "bad" charity stripe contributors, but that's more likely fool's gold than not, unless Prather and Wilbekin take and make most of Florida's freebies from here on in.Somehow, Florida still has room to improve.Still, if Florida could shoot a little better inside — the Gators were almost right on their 51.8 percent average on two-pointers this year — and a little better from outside, it could look even better on offense even if the free throw shooting regresses a bit.
And then there's Florida's defense, which is now fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency at 0.90 PPP allowed despite three of its mere eight 1.00+ PPP performances on the year occurring in February. The Gators might well feast on more bad SEC offenses at home and drive that number down further, but Donovan may also be able to better integrate Chris Walker (and reintegrate DeVon Walker) into his rotation during theoretically lower-leverage games over the next few weeks, and both Walkers could use time on the court against teams with players who they can physically match.
There's still room to improve for Florida, and the 17-game winning streak, now tied for the longest in school history in a single season, is evidence that the Gators haven't rested on their laurels quite yet.
Tuesday night, after Florida handled Tennessee late, I wrote that "Maybe, this year, the fear" — the worries Florida fans had about a team that looked fantastic on paper and merely very good on the court in 2012-13, or about teams that couldn't quite jump from very good to elite in 2010-11 and 2011-12 — "is for everyone else." Sunday morning, as I write this, I'm sure that Florida fans can't fear this team in a way everyone who watched it march past Kentucky Saturday night does. And the only fear I have related this Florida team right now, as a matter of fact, is a fear that it won't fully actualize itself, and play the sort of lights-out basketball in March and April that would leave a trail of cinders on the way to history.
That's not much of a fear, I know. But I figure the Gators are terrifying enough on their own.