The Difference is borrowed from feature of the same name at The Two-Man Game, originated by Rob Mahoney, which makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about the game just played. And now, thanks to Florida's 67-61 win over Kansas, we finally have a basketball game worth using The Difference for hoops. Expect it after every game.
The first 20 minutes of Florida's win over Kansas featured the best basketball the Gators have played all year. And yet Florida only truly played great basketball for about 12 of those 20 minutes, filling in the rest with relatively mediocre play — and the greatness was more defensive than offensive.
Florida went on a 21-0 run that covered a little more than eight minutes, and that was just the first part of a 31-6 run that covered about 12 minutes, and turned the tables on Kansas, which led 10-3 at the 15:55 mark and the under-16:00 media timeout (it came at the 15:36 mark), was down 24-10 by 7:40, and trailed 34-16 with 3:26 left in the half. Kansas recovered a bit to end the half down 15, instead of 18 or more, and the cushion of that excellent 10-3 start prevented this game from being a runaway.
Florida could really have been up by 25 or 30 had it really been cooking from deep, as last year's Gators so often were, but the four threes in the 21-0 run felt almost like the bare minimum possible, especially since just one came from Michael Frazier II. These Gators missed four free throws during the 21-0 portion of the run. Florida missed six shots GatorZone's official play-by-play counted as layups in the first half. And the good guys got no points from Casey Prather, their surprising leading scorer, in the first half, as Kansas packed the paint with the towering Joel Embiid and defended Prather's wing attack offense, which really deserves a Pokémon pun.
It could have been worse for Kansas, in other words, and better for Florida. That's terrifying.
The great thing about that run, especially the 21-0 portion of it, was how completely Florida asphyxiated Kansas's offense. Here's how every Kansas possession during the 21-0 run ended.
Begin Possession End Possession Results Players 14:53 14:40 Missed jumper Andrew Wiggins 14:27 14:20 Offensive foul/turnover Frank Mason Jr. 14:07 13:40 Turnover Wayne Selden Jr. 13:25 13:12 Missed three Wiggins 12:59 12:08 Missed jumper, missed three Mason, Selden 12:01 11:39 Missed jumper Tarik Black 10:58 10:31 Turnover Joel Embiid 10:14 9:52 Turnover Perry Ellis 9:47 9:36 Turnover Selden 8:50 8:39 Turnover Naadir Tharpe 8:18 7:52 Missed three (x 2), missed jumper Wiggins (x 2), Embiid
Looking at that table, four things jump out to me: Kansas had one possession of more than 30 seconds in that stretch, and got an offensive rebound on that possession; Kansas didn't get one layup attempt (according to the GatorZone play-by-play); KU pulled down just three offensive rebounds, and jacked up three shots in 26 seconds on the possession it grabbed two; seven different Jayhawks failed in some way during that stretch.
This wasn't one guy getting cold or shooting his team in the foot; it was comprehensive failure that Florida's defense made possible. Florida didn't win the game in this stretch alone, but Kansas probably lost the game during it; even marginally better play here gives the Jayhawks more than a puncher's chance late.
Florida has to do a better job of closing out games, lest it be forced into endless marches to the free throw line like the one we saw. The Gators trusted Prather to shoot free throws down the stretch last night, and he made 10 of the 12 he took — a strong 87.5 percent clip, which upped his season average from 71.4 percent to 73.5 percent.
But it will remain a smart idea to foul Florida repeatedly when down late as long as the Gators have no go-to free throw shooter. Only Frazier, who has made 91.7 percent of his free throws this year, and DeVon Walker, who has made 87.5 percent of his freebies, are over 75 percent from the line among Gators — and Frazier's shot 12 free throws, Walker just eight. Those sample sizes are too small to assume either player won't regress a bit. (Frazier made 84 percent of his free throws in 2012-13, but shot just 31 of them; also, it's easy to avoid fouling at least one person.)
Making matters worse, Florida has three starters — Scottie Wilbekin (50 percent), Will Yeguete (64.7 percent), and Patric Young (53.3 percent) — who should be closers for this team, but are liabilities from the line. Wilbekin's struggles are probably exaggerated by sample size — he's taken just 12 free throws, like Frazier — but he hasn't really been a sure shooter from the stripe in his Florida career, sitting at 67.5 percent from the line as a Gator, and Yeguete (50.9 percent) and Young (55.1 percent) are both essentially masons.
In an ideal world, Florida would put out five players shooting upwards of 70 percent from the line in must-foul situations, but injuries have kept Walker, Eli Carter (86.4 percent from the line in 2012-13 at Rutgers), and Dillon Graham (a sweet stroke) out of the rotation, and Yeguete and Young are too risky to play. Wilbekin basically needs to be on the floor in those situations to give Florida a minimum of two ball-handlers (for what it's worth, Kasey Hill has looked like a very good free throw shooter so far, but is at 71.4 percent), and so you get Wilbekin, Hill, Frazier, Prather, and Dorian Finney-Smith — a lineup with one guy you need to avoid sending to the line (Frazier) who is fairly easy to deny the ball.
Free throws have been a bugaboo for Florida for years now, but the 2012-13 team's struggles with them were always more a bogeyman than a reality: Both Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario shot better than 80 percent from the line, and helped build more leads than bad foul shooting helped erase. This team has shown less capacity to build leads, and has a greater capacity to let them slip. Work on that, Billy.
Despite that slow start from the line and some Erving Walker-esque work on two-pointers this year, Wilbekin has been Florida's best player by far in his four games since returning from suspension, and played his best game as a Gator last night.
Wilbekin gets a ton of praise for being a great perimeter defender, and he is — he hounds opposing guards, has quick hands, and figures out just how much contact he's liable to get away with very early on in each game. But I think he's massively underrated as a team defender because it's easier to sell the narrative of a guard being a perimeter defender.
Scottie — he's got the perfect name for a relentless point guard, doesn't he? — consistently takes on whatever assignment is necessary, allowing other players to take on easier ones. On Tuesday, he guarded Joel Embiid, who only has about 10 inches and 70 pounds on him, in the post. He took on Andrew Wiggins, 6'8" and 220 pounds of rubber, for a stretch of the second half before Wiggins caught fire. And he played stellar defense on both Frank Mason and Tharpe, two pint-sized point guards.
Billy Donovan can trust Wilbekin to do all of those things because he competes with every player he guards, but also because he knows how to guard every position, and will gamble for steals and foul smartly when he knows he's in a mismatch — he did that a couple times on Tuesday, memorably skying for a deflection that turned into a steal while in the high post with about five minutes left to play, and also trying to strip Wiggins in semi-transition, which sent Wiggins to the line, but also staved off the possibility of an and-one or a monster dunk.
Wilbekin does a lot of other little things that are quite satisfying, whether it's funneling guards to the right side of the lane when they drive or boxing out strongly on rebound attempts to eliminate one player away from the ball — if Wilbekin's in for that final shot against UConn, I kinda doubt Shabazz Napier gets the ball — but he'll never be the sort of stat-stuffing point guard Nick Calathes was, because he's simply not tall enough to be a great rebounder. That's part of what makes his current run of offensive form (13.0 points and 5.6 assists per game) so pleasantly surprising.
The other thing that makes it both pleasant and surprising is Wilbekin's checkered, suspension-marred past. I've done more than enough hinting in previous posts to let you figure out why, exactly, Wilbekin has served suspensions, but he's been a changed man by all accounts in recent months, and it's looked like that on the floor, too. Wilbekin's always been a disciplined defender, but he's brought more discipline to his offensive game, and looks like the leader this team needs.
That improvement, with strikes me as mostly the residue of maturity and hard work, makes harangues of Wilbekin, like the ones ESPN analysts Dan Dakich and Dick Vitale have gone on while broadcasting Florida games this year, so frustrating: Yes, Wilbekin made mistakes, and got suspended, but he also stayed with Florida when leaving would have been easier, worked his way back into Donovan's good graces, and has improved as a player — and, I strongly suspect, as a person — maybe less despite his bad decisions than because of them.
It's rare to find a person that makes the right decision in every situation in life, and far rarer to find a college-aged American male that does. Wilbekin is clearly not one of them. But he's an example of how mistakes, if minor and relatively benign, can be teachable moments, and his improvement (and Donovan's teaching and nurturing of him) should be held up as a success story. It just doesn't make for as neat a narrative.
Speaking of narrative: Andrew Wiggins both played into it and played out of it against Florida last night.
Wiggins may not be the best basketball player I've ever seen in person — having seen mostly Florida home games since 2007-08, Anthony Davis takes that prize, with Wiggins and John Wall probably tied for second — but he is by far the most talented. His gift is effortless athleticism, the kind that makes analogies to animals — bounding gazelles, leaping big cats — almost unavoidable. He glides when he runs, and he's breathtaking in transition, but he almost hovers when he leaps, and barely seems to be exerting himself even when he springs two or three feet off the ground.
That athleticism makes explosions like his three threes in four possessions — the span between the first and last was just 1:24, and each three seemed tougher and deeper than the one before — so awesome, and the stretches that he goes without connecting so vexing. If there's a glaring flaw in his game, it's that he's not quite strong enough to take contact in the lane, which makes him shy away from it, but that's an explanation for playing passively and taking jumpers, not an excuse for it.
Those great flashes are so fantastic that they're all anyone wants, but no player is all flash — not Wiggins, not LeBron James, not Michael Jordan. The trick is figuring out how to prolong the flashes, and get more of them. Wiggins may be overhyped, but he's clearly capable of the greatness we ascribe to him; the essential issue is consistency.
Wiggins also has a touch of Bradley Beal Syndrome, I think — he's too nice a guy to demand the ball and command his teammates to stand back, especially as a freshman, despite being clearly the finest player on the floor. He decided to take over the game down the stretch last night, and he did: Florida defended 25-foot threes shot by a 6'8" player who can release the ball from nine feet up if he wants to about as well as it reasonably could, but Wiggins just made them. It was stunning to watch in person, but it's a flash, and Beal had plenty of those early on, too; the trick for Bill Self, as it was for Billy Donovan, is figuring out how to get that out of Wiggins while also doing right by the scads of other talented and deserving players on the roster.
I've got faith that Self, one of the smartest coaches in basketball, will figure it out, and I think Wiggins is going to lead this Kansas team deep into March. I think Kansas may have a few more nights like tonight, with flashes and failure, before everything falls into place. And I think Wiggins will benefit more from Self's coaching than he would have from nearly any other college coach; off the top of my head, the only names I'm confident would do as right with Wiggins as Self will are Donovan (who would have made Wiggins a terror on the wing) and Mike Krzyzewski (ditto).
It's just going to take a little patience. Glimpses of greatness are what Wiggins does now; let the eye-popping dominance come in time.
Meanwhile, things fell into place for Florida last night, and the Gators got the sort of win that past talented Gators squads searching for their identity in non-conference play couldn't quite secure.
The 2012-13 Gators were the exception to the rule, mashing out Wisconsin and Marquette, but that team faltered on the road. The 2011-12 Gators lost close games at Syracuse and Ohio State, and their win over Arizona at home was more a win over a big name than a win over a good team — those Wildcats would lose to Bucknell in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. 2010-11 Florida got blown out by a great Ohio State team at home. 2009-10 Florida got a great neutral site win over Michigan State, but those Spartans were rebuilding; those Gators also got rocked by Syracuse in Tampa.
Last night's win was a win over a very good team that's only going to get better, but it's also a win over Kansas, one of the bluest-veined blue-bloods in college basketball; the only home wins more prestigious would have to come over Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, or Kentucky. Florida obviously can't play Kentucky in non-conference play, and Duke, UNC, and Indiana tend not to travel to other teams' home courts beyond the strictures of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, so this was the biggest white whale available for the Gators, and Florida lucked out with the Big 12/SEC Challenge coming into existence in the year that the Wiggins Comet was wearing crimson and blue.
Florida's proven virtually everything it could possibly prove under Donovan — it got wins over both Duke and North Carolina in the 2000 NCAA Tournament — but an emotional home win over Kansas in the ESPN spotlight is another high-water mark for a program that has established itself among college basketball's elite and is committed to remaining there.
And Florida got it without being at full strength — or, if we're being brutally honest, all that close.
Florida at full strength would have Damontre Harris to battle beasts like the ones Kansas had undernearth — add Wiggins's athleticism to a front line of Tarik Black, Perry Ellis, and Embiid, and Kansas is going to absolutely crush some teams down low when it gels. Florida at full strength can play Kasey Hill, more than a little rusty last night in his first action since suffering a high ankle sprain, at point guard, and let Wilbekin snipe as a shooting guard, utilizing his three-point shooting as more than an occasional contribution. Florida at full strength could use DeVon Walker to spell any player from Wilbekin up to Finney-Smith, and maybe get more of the threes that he purportedly rains in practice. Florida at full strength will know itself a lot better than the Gators that were playing together last night did, because Wilbekin and Hill will have more than zero games of on-court cooperation in their history. Florida at full strength will have Chris Walker.
This was a damn good win by a damn good team, don't get me wrong, but Florida being this good — despite myriad nicks and knocks, the things that have made the beginning of this season a trial by fire instead of a scorched-earth rampage through non-conference play like the one last year's Gators went on — is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and I believe very strongly that this team could win a national championship.
Without Harris, or Carter, the Gators will not be quite as deep as they were expected to be, and without seeing Walker folded into the rotation, it's hard to know what fully-baked Florida will look like. Without those players, though, Florida's played four very good teams to 2-2, losing those two games on the road by a combined five points after playing without a point guard down the stretch in both games. The baseline performance for this team is giving squads with Sweet Sixteen expectations and Final Four hopes hell.
Underrate Florida at your own peril, and underestimate how much better the Gators will get if you want to look foolish. The Gator Boys were back last night, and they're only going to get hotter.