The Differences is borrowed from Rob Mahoney's feature of nearly same name at The Two-Man Game, and makes a number of points equivalent to the margin of victory about games the Gators just played.
Florida 79, LSU 61
Florida ripped off an 8-0 run to begin this game, forcing turnovers on three of LSU's first four possessions, and I called it the "best start to any game this year, bar none" on Twitter. I may have sort of forgotten that Florida went on an 8-0 run over Alabama at home in that game's first 56 seconds, but Florida pulled away early in this game, while it allowed a 15-2 run to Alabama and trailed in the first half. So, yes: "Best start to any game this year, bar none," even if it was not the Gators' best minute.
One great thing about this Florida team is its complete lack of fear on the defensive end. Florida double Johnny O'Bryant in the post on LSU's first possession, and got a turnover for it. We've seen immediate post doubles all year, and presses off first makes (we saw that yesterday, too), and we generally don't see the other team landing the first punch because Florida comes out swinging, intent on scoring a quick knockdown run. It works, and it's also a thrill to watch.
Equally thrilling: Florida knocking down shots. The Gators made three of their first four shots, five of their first seven shots, their first three threes, and five of their first six threes. When hot, Florida can still shoot with anyone in the country, and has the potential to make teams look very, very silly.
Florida has made all of the SEC teams that have gotten to play the Gators at the O'Connell Center on Saturdays this year look silly. Tennessee lost by 26. Texas A&M lost by 33. Alabama, despite being red-hot, still lost by nine. And LSU, yesterday, lost by 18 after trailing by 29.
There are a few different reasons for that dominance on Saturday at home, not least of which is Florida's ability to throttle teams by hitting a different gear. Florida outscored LSU 21-9 in the game's first 10 minutes yesterday, whipped by Alabama with a 23-11 advantage in the first 10 minutes of the second half, and tattooed both Texas A&M (20-5 to close the first half, 21-7 to open the second) and Tennessee (13-7 to end the first, 21-7 coming out of the locker room) twice.
But Florida feeding off huge Saturday crowds surely helps. It was packed in the O'Dome yesterday, even before tipoff, which is still rare for a fanbase that it not known for its promptness. And all four of those Saturday games have GatorZone-reported attendances of at least 12,426 fans, not bad for a building that has a listed capacity of 11,548. The fans who can come to Saturday games against teams like LSU are a great mix of lifers, raucous students, and kids getting their first taste of the O'Dome — more on the first and last of those groups later — and they get plenty loud for this team. There's something about an intense, if slightly smaller, midweek crowd that I think I prefer, but the Gators on the floor sure seem to play better before Saturday's crowds.
That isn't new, by the way. Florida's Saturday SEC home games last season produced a 31-point win over Missouri, a 14-point win over Mississippi at the height of Marshall Henderson mania, a 25-point win over Mississippi State, a 17-point win over Arkansas, and a 12-point win over Alabama; the last Saturday SEC home loss by Florida was the mystifying, frustrating 75-70 decision the 2011-12 Gators dropped to Tennessee while wearing those Nike Hyper Elite Platinum outfits, and they've won the nine games since by an average of 20.6 points per game. Ditch Alabama's surprisingly "close" losses, and the average is 23.4 points per game.
I detail all of that in service of making two other points: 1) I would bet on Florida to win it all if the NCAA Tournament were held exclusively on Saturdays in the O'Dome and 2) Florida finishes its regular season on Saturday in the O'Dome against Kentucky in six days. I. Cannot. Wait.
Everything looks very easy for Florida when its three-pointers fall, and fall they did on Saturday: The Gators rained down 13 threes, a season high, and only took 23 on the day. No player took more than Dorian Finney-Smith's eight, and among Gators who took threes, only Will Yeguete — who missed his only three — failed to shoot at least 50 percent from distance.
The obvious reason for that making everything seem easy is that three-pointers are worth three points, and making a bunch of them rolls up leads or ends opposing teams' runs with alacrity. But Florida making threes also opens up so much underneath for the Gators, who can better deploy Casey Prather's katana game — slashing and slicing — and better utilize Patric Young, Yeguete, and Finney-Smith inside when defenders are worried about kickouts and hesitant to double. Florida's done just fine for itself when the threes aren't falling, too — having them fall is mostly an extra element for the Gators that makes them ridiculously good instead of really, really good.
Playing ridiculously good basketball means not even caring much about Florida once again struggling to defend the three (LSU made seven of 21 threes, with Anthony Hickey getting loose for four makes on three treys) and having unprecedented issues on the boards. Florida's three offensive rebounds were a season low, and their 12 percent offensive rebounding rate was a season low by far; it was the first time in 2013-14 Florida failed to corral at least a fifth of the possible offensive boards.
Normally, this would maybe be cause for concern, especially the latter fact — Florida's certainly allowed opponents to shoot better numbers from three — but Florida probably hurt its offensive rebounding significantly by making more shots, and there simply weren't a lot of boards that I thought Florida should have gotten, but didn't. In fact, the more concerning bit of rebounding effort, at least for me, was Florida yielding 12 offensive rebounds to LSU of a possible 38. Some of those boards were ones Florida probably should've gotten, but Young, Yeguete, and especially Finney-Smith were not particularly active on the defensive glass.
Finney-Smith more than made up for it elsewhere.
He's a matchup nightmare whether his threes are going in or not, because he can slither inside and create for himself and others, and can get offensive boards whether he's taking the shot or not, but if he can sustain his shooting, he'll be Florida's most valuable player in the NCAA Tournament. No other team in the country is bringing a guy in Finney-Smith's mold — for the second straight game, he led Florida in scoring off the bench, only this time he did it while also leading Florida in shots, and doing so in 18 minutes — off the bench, and good luck trying to match a fresh Doe-Doe's energy
Scarier still: Doe-Doe might not be Florida's only reliable energy-and-rebounding frontcourt player, not if Chris Walker can repeat his Saturday performance, the best of his young career.
Walker came off the bench with Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and DeVon Walker at the 13:19 mark, as Billy Donovan subbed in what served as essentially a second line to play with Scottie Wilbekin after a first seven minutes of play that featured very few dead-ball stoppages, and Walker came off the bench flying. He flew around a screen on his first offensive possession, got rebounds on two of his first three defensive possesions, and hung in the air despite contact for an NBA-worthy layup from Hill on a fast break — which I believe was the first one the two AAU teammates have gotten together as Gators. By the time he was subbed out at the 10:19 mark, exactly three minutes after his entrance, Walker had two points and three rebounds, and would have had three points, except for a missed free throw Young razzed him about after the game.
Two points and three boards in three minutes doesn't seem like much, and Walker's final line of two points, six rebounds, two blocks, and a steal isn't jaw-dropping, but it's fantastic, given his abbreviated year and slow development. Four days ago, Walker looked lost against Vanderbilt, and got literally 40 seconds on the court, in which he gave up a layup and fouled on a simple post-up; anything better than that would have been a pleasant surprise on Saturday, but Walker was genuinely good in his 14 minutes, looking as ferocious and desperate as the rest of his teammates are and, finally, competent enough to play within Florida's system on both ends without major hiccups.
Walker is and will likely always be a phenomenal athlete, and Florida's best athlete. He is that big, that fast, that skilled. But those things won't change; what will change is his mentality and his understanding of the game, as Donovan takes him from phenom to basketball player. We saw the first step of that on Saturday.
We also saw three downright terrifying lineups that Florida really hasn't used this season.
The first was the one Donovan created with his quasi-hockey sub: Hill at point, Wilbekin at off guard, DeVon Walker at the three, Finney-Smith and Chris Walker in the frontcourt. Hill shifting Wilbekin to off guard gives Wilbekin a break from the rigors of running Florida's offense and makes him a more dangerous spot-up shooter; Scottie, DeVo and Doe-Doe sharing the court gives Florida three shooters to space the floor well, if it wants to utilize Finney-Smith as a shooter; Finney-Smith and the Walkers together gives Florida three freakishly long-limbed weapons for its press; Finney-Smith and Chris Walker give Florida two potentially relentless rebounders.
We only saw that lineup for about a minute, in which it neither scored nor gave up points, before Frazier was inserted for Wilbekin. And that lineup may be even scarier: It outscored LSU 8-2 before Wilbekin was reinserted, and there isn't even a junior on it. Hill flying solo at the point is a bit scary, but he's played with both Frazier and Walker for years prior to Florida, and Frazier is obviously a better off guard sniper than Wilbekin. The energy stuff of the above lineup all still remains true, and Frazier is a more natural defender for big wings than Wilbekin, whose defensive genius and hustle still don't totally make up for the height he gives up to shooting guards.
And then there was the lineup created late in the second half by subbing in Walker for Yeguete and Young for Finney-Smith in quick succession: Hill, Wilbekin, Frazier, Chris Walker, and Young. I don't know how you would reliably score on that lineup inside, with Young anchoring the strong side of the post and Walker soaring in from the weak side, and I think the problems created by letting Hill create for either his old running buddies or two of Florida's vaunted seniors are all bad, bad ones for opposing defenses. That lineup only went 4-4 with LSU in its cameo, but Wilbekin got one of the easiest floaters of this year and Frazier threw down a dunk off a Walker steal with it on the floor.
Any one of those three lineups is exciting in its own right; all three getting burn in one game is exhilarating. And Florida finally getting a low-leverage, large-lead game that allowed Donovan to tinker with his rotation was more valuable than it probably seemed at first blush: The No. 1 team in the country is adding new and scary things with two weeks to go before the NCAA Tournament.
And we get to root for it.
The development of Florida's bench is also a frightening, er, development, at least for everyone else in the country.
Finney-Smith was always this talented, and played a lot like this at Virginia Tech, but his shot has come along over the course of this year, and he's gotten better as a playmaker and rebounder. Hill still has some Luis Mendoza moments, but he also led Florida in assists yesterday, whipping beautiful and ridiculously difficult passes, while playing 21 minutes in a return from a painful groin injury, and seemingly finally grokked "DO NOT SHOOT YOU CAN BEAT ANYONE OFF THE DRIBBLE" during his hiatus, restricting his wild, no-chance shot attempts to drives in garbage time. Improbably, DeVon Walker has turned into a sniper, making two threes in Florida's last four games, and five of its last six; he's 10-for-17 from deep over that six-game stretch, and 8-for-14 in his last four games. We already discussed Chris Walker's improvement.
And, for all intents and purposes, that's Florida's bench, a four-man unit with Jacob Kurtz on call to serve as a sort of emergency plug-and-play piece1. It's four guys of varying talents and skills — Finney-Smith, Hill, and Chris Walker will all eventually play in the NBA, but their paths to playing time are going to be very different; DeVon Walker has a professional future in basketball, but I doubt it'll include the NBA — who have all improved significantly from the beginning of this season to the end.
A nine-man rotation with five excellent starters, a sixth pseudo-starter (Finney-Smith), a killer sixth man playing as a seventh man (Hill), and a couple of high-energy, well-defined role players is about as close to the platonic ideal of a college basketball roster as I can dream up. Donovan cobbling this one together, in this season, is maybe his best coaching job.
And that rotation helped Florida do one thing it has been needing to do for weeks yesterday: Rest its seniors. None of Florida's four seniors played more than Wilbekin's 29 minutes, and it was Wilbekin's first outing of fewer than 31 minutes since February 1 against Texas A&M in another laughter. Those lineups mentioned above don't just steal minutes, but stealing minutes is helpful for this team, which needs wins far less than it needs continued good health.
Still, my favorite parts of the game yesterday had nothing to do with the game on the court, which was fun as all get out. I love going to games to see this team, sure, but I often come away with memories that are of the crowd.
The first bunch of fans I enjoyed being with was the three kids, a high school student from Raines in Jacksonville and his two younger, possibly related friends, who sat in the seats next to me and right below me. I bought the recent grad ticket package Florida offered this fall, so my seat is in the third level, essentially the nosebleeds, and next to seats sold for general admission, and I've sat next to grandparents and grade schools this year as a result.
These kids were my favorite seatmates. The high schooler sat next to me, and we chatted about the game — about Scottie and Will bringing the ball up slowly and almost having a conversation as they did it, about how Florida doubling in the post helped Anthony Hickey get open shots — and about him, and how UF is his dream school, and how he wondered if I had ever interacted with Tim Tebow in my time in Gainesville2. The two kids wrassled with each other in their seats, and talked about what a fast break is; one of them, a huskier little guy, lamented not being able to get rebounds against the six-footer next to me in a pickup game, to which I was able to say "Watch how Will Yeguete gets rebounds."
I didn't get any of their names, which is my bad, but I hope that kid from Raines gets into UF, and I hope he and his friends keep talking about this game. I suspect they might.
The fans in the row behind me were older and wiser. Three middle-aged folks and a guy in his 20s, they called former Florida coach Norm Sloan "Stormin' Norman," talked about these Gators like fans who read blogs and message boards for basketball info, and chatted with me about lineups and refs. (The refs were bad yesterday. I'm over it.) Knowledgeable Florida basketball fans are harder to find than you might expect, especially when you're no longer sitting down low with the Rowdy Reptiles, and every one I interact with is a joy to talk to; these folks were no different.
Finally, after the game, and after navigating around the clogged O'Connell Center concourse — kids got to shoot on the floor after the game, and that line stretched from one foul line to to the other baseline, with hundreds more people staging on the track to watch the little ones, so it was not particularly easy to get around — I walked back down Stadium Drive to my car, parked at the law school, as it invariably is for these basketball games. I walked by a white-hair couple, one with seat cushions that dated to at least the '90s, and chatted them up for some perspective.
They told me they had been going to Florida games for 30-plus years, and so I asked them where this team ranks in Florida history. "I think they're better than last year's team," the woman of the couple said, without hesitation.
But pressed on whether this team rated with the title teams, she hesitated. "The Oh-Fours played so well together," she said, praising their chemistry. And when I pointed out that this team plays well together, too, she was still reluctant to crown them.
"It's easy to look back after the tournament and remember" if a team was good, she said. But this team's not there yet, and so it's harder to know how "great" it is. And she's right.
I wrote at length about the history awaiting Florida in yesterday's Game Thread. I pride myself on knowing this team about as well as anyone who spends practices outside the basketball facility. I think this team is very, very good, no more than a half-step to a full step behind the 2006, 2007, and 2013 teams in terms of quality of play, and maybe a half-step ahead of the 2000 team that played for a national title.
But there is a difference between good and great, and it boils down, for most, to the difference between ability and achievement. Florida has all the ability — the talent, the design, the temperament, the drive — it needs; now, the Gators are in the final stretch, where the achievements matter and greatness is awarded or denied.
The Gator Nation is everywhere. And it's everyone in those three groups, and many more. I love this team, this fanbase, all of you readers who read, disagree with, and occasionally enjoy my thoughts on various Gators teams, and everyone who makes Florida athletics possible. I don't say that, or express my gratitude for all of that, enough.
But I'm not sure I could if I tried.
I genuinely trust Kurtz to play anything from point guard to power forward for a minute or two in a pinch; he's the nation's best walk-on who is not Doug McDermott, who is not actually a walk-on.
Spoiler alert: The answer is almost always no when I am asked "Did you know (Gator of some repute), because I am boring and have few stories. Sorry.