The Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s non-conference is not studded with the sorts of big names that make casual fans sit up and take notice. There are no meetings with Kansas, or Louisville, or Michigan State, or UCLA — instead, this year, the Gators played UConn, and a bunch of other teams whose reputations exceed their national profiles.
Butler, which hosts Florida in storied Hinkle Fieldhouse on this Saturday (noon, FOX), is part of that bunch.
The Bulldogs haven’t been national darlings since the departure of Brad Stevens for the Boston Celtics earlier this decade, and mostly haven’t been as good as they were during that magical two-year run of back-to-back NCAA Tournament final appearances. But Stevens made those appearances with teams that finished at No. 12 and No. 36 in KenPom — and this year’s team is at No. 16 for now, which would be its highest finish since Stevens.
Credit is due to both former coach Chris Holtmann, now at Ohio State, and LaVall Jordan, who succeeded Holtmann a year ago, for stabilizing a program that went sideways for one year under Brandon Miller and piloting it into Big East contenderhood. And the credit for Kamar Baldwin, one of the nation’s best players, should be divvied up between Holtmann, his recruiter, and Jordan, the coach under whom the undersized combo guard has flourished. Last season, Baldwin was the primary reason that Florida fell to Butler in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and the Bulldogs’ leading scorer in their 77-43 brownout in Gainesville; this year, he’s much better, shooting nearly 55 percent on his twos, over 40 percent from three, and a staggering 95 percent from the line.
And he’s not alone in producing for the undefeated Bulldogs, who have wins over Minnesota, Missouri, Stanford, and Ole Miss. Tweener forward Sean McDermott has been one of the nation’s most efficient scorers thanks to his 46 percent clip from distance, and Milwaukee transfer Bryce Nze has been a load inside, converting on 64 percent of his twos. Neither Nze nor fellow big Bryce Golden has been very good at the foul line, affording Florida a potential inefficiency to exploit on defense, but Butler’s shot well and defended almost as well this year, all while playing at the same glacial pace that Florida fans have come to loathe from the Gators.
Butler is also best nationally in avoiding non-steal turnovers, which is a strong indication that this game may come down to which team can better execute on 30-second offensive possessions, unless something goes awry. And the edge should probably go to the team at home in front of 10,000 devoted fans, especially during a week that has seen Hoosier State home crowds help contribute to blowout wins by Indiana (over FSU) and Purdue (over Virginia).
If Florida can overcome the very good team and very inhospitable climes it is walking into on this Saturday, though? The Gators will have by far their best win of the season.