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 72, South Carolina 68
There's not all that much to be said about this game, I think: Florida just hit shots when it had to, played defense when it had to, and made free throws when it had to.
But it's worth noting that the first and last parts of that are really rare for the Gators — and rarer still against South Carolina. The Gamecocks had the No. 6 defense in the country in terms of adjusted efficiency coming in, and hadn't allowed a team to score even 1.00 points per possession since Baylor put up 1.13 on November 18. Florida scored 1.09 PPP — its best tally since lambasting Jacksonville to the tune of 1.50 PPP — and vaulted its offense from triple digits in adjusted offensive efficiency to its current No. 51 perch.
And the key to the offense was, remarkably, free throws.
Free throws are the most efficient shots in basketball; even if you make "just" 70 percent of them (and Florida's at 66.7 percent on the season, after last night), you should be scoring well above your average for an offensive possession when you go to the line. On Wednesday, Kirk Goldsberry published a really good look at James Harden and the Rockets that explains that his talent for free throw creation and conversion is the key to him being an elite offensive player, and one of the things that makes the Rockets so good. You should read it.
Florida has been, to put it kindly, friggin' awful at both creation and conversion this year. Even after taking 30 free throws last night, the Gators rank 297th in free throws attempted per field goal attempt (known as Free Throw Rate), and even after making 25 of 30, they're 229th in free throw percentage. Florida's 61.2 percent mark in Free Throw Rate last night was the Gators' second-best mark of the year (their 61.5 percent against Louisiana-Monroe helped save them in that game), but also just their second outing of better than 50 percent this season; the 2013-14 Gators had 14, and had six through their first game of SEC play.
The lack of ability to create (read: draw) fouls is, I think, just a weakness of this team's personnel: There's no slasher like Casey Prather or bullying guard — Brandone Francis could have been one — to pick up fouls on drives, and there's no low-post force like Patric Young to pick up fouls on the interior. Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza are quick enough to shy away from contact and dish passes, but too slight to want to seek out contact inside; Jon Horford and Chris Walker don't go up strong enough to force other teams to foul. All of that is unfortunate, but it's really not something that can be fixed in-season.
But the lack of ability to convert fouls into points at the free throw line is not tied to team construction. So it's more troubling — and more painful. Florida could probably have better survived its inability to get to the line merely by making better use of its trips earlier this year: Keeping all else equal, had Florida simply shot its free throws at roughly the 83.3 percent rate it managed last night in every game this season, the Gators would be 11-3, with losses to Miami (by a point), North Carolina, and Kansas (by a possession).
And there's no telling how making free throws that were missed might have otherwise affected those games beyond adding to Florida's point total. Free throw makes allow defenses to get set up, prevent semi-transition opportunities, and generally slow down games, something that Florida's shallow rotation could benefit from.
Truth be told, Florida should be better at free throws — not because fans conceive of free throws as "free" and as "easy" shots, but because there are things a team can do to improve free throw shooting. Billy Donovan's teams have shot under 70 percent at the line for four of the last five seasons (including 2014-15), and it has hurt the Gators, especially in close games, so I'd be all for new and creative ways of trying to get the freebies to count.
Wednesday's game showed that Florida can be very good at the line. Let's hope that high-water mark isn't just the sign of a briefly rising tide.
Michael Frazier II, Wednesday night: 17 points on seven shots, 3-for-5 from three.
Michael Frazier II, vs. South Carolina in Columbia, career (two games): 54 points on 28 shots, 14-for-23 from three.
Michael Frazier II, vs. South Carolina, career (four games): 74 points on 42 shots, 20-for-36 from three.
I think MF II is to South Carolina what Every Single Tennessee Shooting Guard Ever is to Florida. And it's great.
But it's worth noting that Frazier's first time scoring more than five points on anything other than threes against the Gamecocks was last night.
I was half-watching this game, over at a friend's house, playing Cards Against Humanity for the second half. And all of us were waiting and waiting and waiting for the inevitable collapse.
Florida tried, three times, to give us one. Allowing an 11-0 run after building an 11-point lead was an uncharacteristically early attempt. Florida then gave up a 7-2 run to end the first half, and I thought the Gators would trail for the rest of the night. That didn't happen, fortunately — their own 11-point swing, on a 13-2 run, got the Gators the lead for good — but Florida still gave up three points on three straight South Carolina possessions in the final minute.
And on a night when Florida wasn't making free throws, that could have been fatal. But Jacob Kurtz, Dorian Finney-Smith, Frazier, and Eli Carter all were perfect from the line on trips in the final minute. And it wasn't ever closer than two points — nor was South Carolina within three with the ball — as a result.
Make your free throws, kids.