Playing in a hostile environment in Starkville, the Florida Gators had their hands full with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Errant passes, a sluggish first half and a tight zone defense made it a tough game for the Gators. It wasn’t pretty, and in typical Florida fashion, it wasn’t stylish, but as I have said again and again: a win is a win. It doesn’t matter how you get there; it just matters that you get to the end with the lead. This Florida team doesn’t do it in dazzling fashion on the road, but they won and now look toward Texas A&M at home on Saturday.
Free throw shooting remained a concern for the team, going 8-of-19 from the line. But draining 46% of their shots in the paint and around the rim was a boon. Additionally, the defensive dominance of Florida continued with Patric Young nabbing eight rebounds and holding Mississippi State to just 16% from the field.
Perhaps the best thing about this Gators squad, and my favorite part of watching the team, is when one man has a down game (Scottie Wilbekin had a quiet 8-point night and Michael Frazier II was only 3-for-9 from behind the arc), another man or two steps up (in this case, Casey Prather and Patric Young with 16 and 12 points respectively) to carry the Florida banner to victory.
With the win, Florida remains the sole unbeaten team in SEC play. They also capitalized on the rare opportunity to open up a full two-game lead in the SEC standings over Kentucky and Ole Miss. To help matters even further, Florida’s next three games are at the O’Dome, where they’ve won 26 consecutive games.
Looking at this season objectively, to say that Donovan had done his homework is an understatement. The focus, poise, and winning key 1:1 matchups all comes from the coach. He has mastered the art of adapting styles of play to each opponent.
It’s a far-overused cliché to say that teams get caught up in the scores and records for their respective, but Florida lives it and believes it. We’ve all seen teams that give the post-game interviews, saying, “It’s a team effort,” but having the dreaded Richard Sherman-esque “Me, ME, M-E!” glint in their eyes. Not this squad.
I challenge you to name one player who has had a “starring” role in any streak of games this season. Sure, Florida players might have a good game – like Frazier from behind the arc at Alabama, Young at the rim against Tennessee, or Wilbekin at Auburn with the clutch fade-away that essentially iced the Florida victory – but there’s not one player who is easily identifiable with the team. There’s not a Julius Randle at Kentucky or Andrew Wiggins at Kansas.
If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume you follow Florida basketball (FANTASTIC—sorry, couldn’t resist) pretty closely. I firmly believe that Donovan’s assembled group, when it plays cohesively, can dominate. They just need to figure out how to do it every game – and come Tuesday, do it with McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker.
Florida wins with effort, and as a team. The point totals and shooting percentage may not be eye popping, but it’s the defensive effort the Gators are showing at home, and pretty much every game this season, that has them ranked so highly.
Florida has lost two games (both on the road) by a combined seven points, and the latter was on a last second buzzer beater – hardly resounding trouncings. If there was ever a year for a team with little star power to be the best in college basketball, this is the season. But it’s still very early.
Florida needs to shoot as many foul shots as they can during practice, because as I’ve told many friends, that’s the team’s downfall this year – particularly with Young at the line. But if that’s the Achilles heel, it’s much better than problems with team cohesion, scoring in transition, or players who get themselves into foul trouble early.
“Every possession had to be a championship possession,” Young has said in the past.
If Florida keeps playing like this, we might see a few of those come March. These seniors want to play a game in April for change, and I’m sure April 7th is circled on their calendars.