By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
After Florida’s narrow loss at Arizona and its surprising, pre-Christmas letdown against Kansas State, national pundits began backing off earlier statements that the Gators were a potential Final Four team. But Florida’s take-no-prisoners, 4-0 start in Southeastern Conference play, accomplished by an average victory margin of 26.8 points, has rekindled interest in the Gators as a team that could well turn up in Atlanta in late March.
One of Florida’s proponents is ESPN’s tempo-free statistics guru John Gassaway, who wrote earlier this week that, “there’s a case to be made that, even with losses to Arizona in Tucson and to Kansas State in Kansas City, this is the No. 1 team in the country at the moment.”
He’ll get no argument here, especially after Florida’s 31-point destruction of Missouri last Saturday. Granted, the Tigers were without leading scorer Laurence Bowers, but that score was a stunner. Tempo-free stats—which can be found on Ken Pomeroy’s website, kenpom.com—tell an interesting story about the Gators, who are rated No. 2 in Division I in adjusted offensive efficiency, behind only Michigan. But then, it’s a given that Florida, under coach Billy Donovan, has always been a robust offensive team.
What’s most surprising about this edition of Florida basketball is its defensive prowess. Again turning to Pomeroy’s numbers, the Gators are also No. 2 in the nation in defensive efficiency, behind only Louisville.
The concept of Florida playing defense is not foreign. Donovan’s national title-winning teams of 2006-07 practiced the art effectively, especially after assistant coach and defensive specialist Larry Shyatt joined the staff. But after Shyatt returned to Wyoming for his second tour of duty as head coach, there was a drop-off. Last season Florida ranked No. 7 in the SEC in scoring defense (65.0 ppg) and a generous ninth in field-goal percentage defense (.423) and eighth in 3-point percentage defense (.343).
This season, the Gators are No. 1 in the conference in scoring defense (51.7), No. 1 in field-goal defense (.361) and No. 4 in 3-point defense (.297).
How to explain that about face? It’s not fair to pin all last year’s damage on the fact the Gators were undersized at the point with Erving Walker, who stood somewhere in the neighborhood of 5-foot-7. But Walker was often victimized by opponents posting him up or simply shooting over him. Walker has been replaced by defensive stalwart Scottie Wilbekin, who is leaving a string of victims in his wake. A game after dropping 40 on Kentucky, Texas A&M’s Elston Turner was 1 of 10 from the field against Florida, and Wilbekin. In the Missouri game, Wilbekin harassed Tiger point guard Phil Pressey into a career-high 10 turnovers and 1-of-7 shooting.
“It was always a challenge to hide (Walker) defensively,” Donovan said. “Especially in the half court.”
Not so with Wilbekin.
But again, Walker can’t take the hit for all Florida’s 2011-12 defensive liabilities. Give Donovan credit for using the offseason to fix some problems and his players for being willing to do the same.
“We’ve made some adjustments,” Donovan said. “Players on your team have to be really committed. Everybody loves playing offense. Up to this point, our guys have been committed to try and get better (on defense.).”
OLE MISS’ SECRET WEAPON: If Wilbekin is an unsung yet essential component of Florida’s success, sophomore point guard Jarvis Summers has filled the same role for Ole Miss, which at 15-2 finally slipped into the national rankings this week (No. 23 Associated Press, No. 24 coaches) for the first time in almost four years.
Marshall Henderson, Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner get most of the press coverage, but Summers has elevated his play in his all-important role as lead guard. He’s committed just 17 turnovers all season, and coupled with his 63 assists, that gives him an SEC-leading 3.3 turnover margin. Summers is also making free-throws, a must for a player who has the ball in his hands so often in late-game situations, and he’s making enough 3-pointers (eight of 25, .320) to force defenses to respect him.
“Jarvis has really played well the last two weeks,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Early in the season, he was good, but not as good as I’d anticipated in year two. But as we’ve started finding ourselves as a group, he’s been a major catalyst in that.”
TIDE FIRING AWAY: Alabama’s play in the non-conference portion of its schedule was one of the surprises of the season’s first two months. The Crimson Tide’s 8-5 record included consecutive losses to the best teams on its schedule (Cincinnati, Dayton, VCU) and two more of the head-scratching variety in succession at home (Mercer and Tulane). But once Alabama got a road loss at Missouri out of its system, it has conjured up three straight SEC wins.
With a home game against Kentucky on Tuesday night, Alabama’s primary weakness—the lack of a rim protector and inside scoring threat—could be underscored yet again. Moussa Gueye provides a big body at 7-0 and 255 pounds, but he’s not a factor offensively (.263 from the field). Nick Jacobs has potential, but he’s still growing into his role.
But the perfect counter to teams with size could be Alabama’s outside shooting prowess. A year ago it shot .289 from behind the arc, by far the worst mark in the league. This season, that number has been ratcheted up to .363—third in the SEC—and in league games only, Alabama is No. 1 by a substantial margin at .455 (Florida is second at .398).
Leading the way is Trevor Lacey (.556 in SEC games), but he’s gotten capable assistance from Rodney Cooper (.462), Levi Randolph (.444) and Trevor Releford (.364).
Suffice it to say if Alabama can continue making 3s anywhere close to that level and defending the way it usually does, it has a chance to salvage a season that, after those losses to Mercer and Tulane, seemed to be hanging in the balance.