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 67, Albany 55
Game Thread | SBNation.com Recap
Florida won its first NCAA Tournament game of 2014 as the No. 1 overall seed by 12 points over Albany seven years after winning its first NCAA Tournament game ever as the No. 1 overall seed by 43 points over Jackson State.
So, yes, I understand the frustration people had with that result, especially given the expectations that come along with being the No. 1 overall seed.
In that 2007 game, Jackson State scored 0.92 points per possession despite shooting 36.9 percent from the field. In Thursday's, Albany scored 0.89 PPP while shooting 39.2 percent from the field, and after starting 10-for-15 from the field. Florida may have played "poorly" or turned in a "C" or "C-" performance — and, having made all those assessments myself on Twitter and in texts to friends, I believe that Florida did — but it still played well, too. Albany didn't go 10-for-36 from the field after that start on purpose.
The biggest difference between this team and the core that Florida won two titles in the past is that its starting lineup is an inferior facsimile in almost every respect. Taurean Green was a little better than Scottie Wilbekin at everything but defense; Michael Frazier is a better shooter than Lee Humphrey, but lacks a lot of the experience and savvy Hump had as a defender; Casey Prather is Corey Brewer with a little less athleticism and no outside shot; Will Yeguete is just happier than Al Horford; Patric Young is stronger than Joakim Noah, but only barely.
Florida makes up for a lot of that talent gap with effort that is usually overwhelming over the course of 40 minutes, and it's arguable that the effort Florida put forth on the defensive end after the hot start by Albany was what won yesterday's game. But when Florida is not at full bore, or close, it is mortal; it does not have the switches to flip that the 2006 and 2007 NCAA Tournament castle-stormers had, and Billy Donovan knows it. If he was "baffled" or frustrated yesterday, it had to be because this effort was the one of team that expected to win rather than one that knew it could win. Effort is essential to this team's success and it wasn't all there on Thursday.
If you don't think that was and has been made crystal clear to a team that scarcely took a minute off for three months in SEC play, you must be new here.
And while worrying only about Florida is what I get paid to do, mostly, and is what fans are obviously supposed to do, using that orange and blue lens alone ignores the fact that Albany played a damn good game of basketball.
The way to take a puncher's chance at beating Florida is to prevent the Gators from having Michael Frazier II go off (check) and hope the rest of Florida's shooters miss their threes (check) while taking the low-efficiency shots Florida's defense gives out like candy (check) and making them at a high rate (check, at least early). Albany clearly had Florida extraordinarily well-scouted, and smothered Frazier on defense while running pick-and-pops that Florida doesn't defend well (because virtually no SEC team runs them) for 16-foot jumpers from forwards. And the forwards — John Puk and Gary Johnson — made them.
With the Gators goggles on, that's Florida conceding easy buckets. (And, yes, Florida gave up a few too many layups for my taste.) But with my analyst's scope on the game, Albany just did exactly what it needed to do, schematically, to stay in this game on offense, and got some unusually good (Puk was shooting 43.3 percent from the field coming in; D.J. Evans, who we'll get to, played well above his level) performances to boot. The Great Danes also handled the Florida press as well as any team I have seen this season since Wilbekin's return — despite not having even half the talent of a lot of teams that have played the Gators.
It was a combination of superb game-planning and excellent execution that helped Albany stay in the game for as long as it did. And then Florida won out.
Even though the Danes started hot in both halves, they finished cold. Albany started 10-for-15 in the first half, then finished on a 1-for-9 skid; it started 3-for-4 in the second half, eventually tying the game on a free throw, then finished 7-for-23 over the last 15:16 of the second half. And the Danes weren't just missing open looks: Florida challenged practically every shot when it was really trying, and forced desperation shots by running around and defending for entire possessions.
Florida is, even on days when its shots don't fall and its offense doesn't work and its press doesn't force turnovers, a very, very good defensive team, because it is built on the soundest of principles and has exceptional defenders at every position except shooting guard (sorry, Mike, just being honest). That's enough, sometimes.
It sure was nice to have Kasey Hill flash to the rescue, though.
Hill is spectacularly gifted with the ball in his hands, and that's never been up for debate, but he is especially so against teams that just don't have defenders to stop him. He went from cogitation to completion on three or four drives before the Albany defense could react, and scored four of his eight points in that pivotal 9-0 run.
We're going to talk ourselves silly arguing about Hill's future in the coming months — I think it's very, very bright; you may argue that he needs to figure out how to make jump shots — but it is worth praising his bright present. He helped save Florida yesterday on a bad day for Florida's guards, matching Wilbekin's 10 points in 31 minutes with 10 in his 17 minutes off the bench, and did so with turf toe (?), and he's better than you think already.
Also helping Florida off the bench: Dorian Finney-Smith, who scored 16 points while making two jumpers (one a three), hammering three dunks and making a tough layup, and making three of four free throws. Finney-Smith is Florida's only scorer who is consistently dangerous at all three levels — you and I may hate that gangly-ass pump-fake, but he uses it beautifully to create space — and the Gators bring him off the bench because their starting lineup is tremendous.
And to finish the sweep of tremendous efforts: Patric Young had 10 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double since the 2012-13 season. He hulked up a little too hard on that flagrant foul, and I believe I missed the replay that confirmed it was one just after sending this tweet, and he had three turnovers, and he threw up one bad shot, but this was a quintessential 2013-14 Patric Young game, and Florida needed one.
Though I really liked Albany's gameplan, the smallest guy on the court was the biggest reason Florida struggled for much of the day ... and he wasn't really executing any part of that plan on offense. DJ Evans is listed at 5'9", but that's like Erving Walker's listed height of 5'8", I think, and he is the classic waterbug point guard who is allowed to freelance as he sees fit, and can be annoying as hell if he's on.
Against the best team in the country, he sure as hell was, raining tough shots, getting to the free throw line and scoring 21 points despite a) being ~5'9" and b) being inadvertently kneed in the head by Hill on a loose ball. While I'm a little skeptical about Evans being allowed to almost immediately re-enter the game after that play, which ended with him staying down for a minute or so and scaring the crowd, I salute him for playing the quintessential "Guard makes all the desperation shots Florida loves forcing" game and also somehow leading Albany with seven rebounds.
Evans came in shooting about 44 percent from two and 33 percent from three, and made four of seven two-pointers and two of his five threes. This was a hot day for some Albany players.
It was also a cold day for Albany's Aussies, Peter Hooley and Sam Rowley, who combined to go 2-for-18 from the field and score nine points after combining for 29 in Albany's Tuesday win over Mount St. Mary's. Florida kept those guys cold because it wanted to, it seemed to me; it "let" Evans heat up despite its best efforts. But deciding whether a result is because of defensive design or offensive execution or good or bad luck is hard. I could be wrong.
I could also be wrong about this, but I have a theory that Albany actually got to scout Florida a little more than Florida scouted Albany. Albany was able to prepare for this week like it was a two-game schedule, assigning some assistant coach to scout Mount St. Mary's in advance of that game, and another to scout Florida, just in case. That would give that assistant about three days to scout the Gators. Florida, on the other hand, didn't know which team it was playing until Albany won on Tuesday night, and would have had to devote two assistants as scouts, one to each team, on Monday and Tuesday, to equal Albany's prep.
One other thing that may have helped a bit: Mount St. Mary's plays a lot like Florida, at least in its pressing defense, and so the Mountaineers helped Albany prepare for Florida simply by being the obstacle in their way.
It certainly handled Florida's press a little better than the Mount's: Albany had 10 turnovers in 62 possessions against the Gators two days after having 14 in 64.
But there's one thing that is most important about this win: The win.
It does not matter how many points Florida beats each team by anymore, not unless you care about pointless designations like "most dominant team ever?" or NCAA Tournament survival odds. There are no style points available. And there should be few excuses made by any team for surviving and advancing; it doesn't matter how a team wins an NCAA Tournament game, just that it does.
But Florida earned the privilege of being able to sleepwalk against a team that caught fire and still win comfortably by winning all those games leading up to this one. The Gators didn't win them for that reason — they won them because they were games on their schedule, and they want to win all of them — but it's the best benefit of earning a No. 1 seed: You get to play a team that is generally not very good.
Florida didn't get the worst No. 16 seed — that would be Coastal Carolina, which would have made more geographic sense to send to Orlando — but it got a team that had to play a game in Dayton before getting to Orlando, a team with no superlative athletes or standout proficiencies. In a tournament with practically nothing guaranteed, a No. 1 seed has been safe passage to the round of 32 every time in the 64-team era. I don't think we or Florida needs to apologize for getting the desired and expected result.