Florida’s March to the title begins with dominating victory over LSU

The operator called, and the Florida Gators quickly disconnected from the LSU Tigers on Saturday in Gainesville. Offense, defense – all of it – combined for one of the most beautiful basketball team performances I have ever seen, which resulted in a 79-61 walloping of the Bayou Bengals. The raucous crowd at the O’Connell Center clearly enjoyed the game, evidenced by the largest crowd of the season (12,589), and at times drowning out play-by-play announcer Verne Lundquist.

The Gators, winners of 21 straight overall and 31 consecutive games at home, routed LSU from the jump, not once relinquishing the lead after Patric Young’s opening jumper. In fact, all nine Gators on the roster scored (four with double figures), including a 28-point output from the reserves. Dorian Finney-Smith scored 16 points off the bench, Casey Prather had 12, Michael Frazier was 4-for-6 from behind the arc, and SEC player of the year candidate Scottie Wilbekin added 11 points of his own.

While the Gators have reeled off victories, many have been close games (their previous seven wins were by 10 points or less). Saturday was an entirely different story: an almost 20 point runaway. It seems like the Gator offense is finally coming together as the calendar turns to March. With the eyes of the nation soon turning to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, that is a very good thing for Gator fans everywhere.

On the defensive end, Florida forced 15 turnovers, resulting in 17 points. Add in 26 rebounds and three massive blocked shots, and the Gators completely dominated the Tigers on both ends of the floor. The defensive highlight of the game occurred when, after losing the ball with an empty backcourt midway through the first half, Prather hustled down the court and denied what otherwise looked to be an easy layup for LSU. It eliminated the negative consequence from his mistake, and showed off yet another piece of tremendous hustle.

The story of the day, though, was a tidal wave of three point shots raining down for the Orange and Blue. Of the first nine field goals with which the Gators connected, six came from behind the arc. Florida went 13-for-23 in three-point attempts, combining for 39 points coming from four different players (Frazier, Wilbekin, Finner-Smith, and DeVon Walker). This was the fourth time on the season that Florida has reached double-digits in threes.

The scary (good) part about the blowout win is that LSU, even with a season-low total of four bench points, fields a strong and talented team. They lead the league in offense, and rank in the top-five in field goal percentage, steals and assists. They also have the SEC blocked shots leader, Jordan Mickey, as well as players ranked in the top-five in steals, assists, and rebounds. They did not come in with a light resume, either – beating Kentucky in Baton Rouge and coming within four seconds of doing the same in Lexington. They are by no means paper Tigers.

Florida can win against lowly teams; Florida can win against not-so-good teams; Florida can win against strong teams; and Florida can win against great teams. If the Gators can put together as complete a game as they did against a strong LSU team, what exactly awaits them in March as we move into tournament season? I can’t recall a time when that question had such enticing possibilities.

People may say that the SEC isn’t as talented as in years past, but it’s not only the SEC Florida is dominating: it’s Kansas (who wrapped up another Big 12 title last week), Memphis (who is in contention win the American Athletic Conference), and Richmond (who is in the mix in the Atlantic 10 conference). Florida’s two losses came in December without a fully healthy Wilbekin, and were by a combined total of seven points. Since then, the Gators have tightened up to earn the eighth-ranked scoring defense in the country, and have only allowed an opponent to score above 75 in three tries (two of those against top 25 teams – and one was an overtime victory at Arkansas). Either way you cut it, that’s pretty damned good.

I’ve had multiple concerns all season from this team, be it free-throw shots; early season team chemistry; how, when, and if the offense would congeal in close games; how Chris Walker would fit into the equation; how Wilbekin’s suspension and injuries would affect the team; and if the players had it within themselves to win on the road. All of those questions have been answered, and all my concerns have been put to bed. Fueled by upperclassmen that have been tortured in three consecutive Elite Eight appearances, this Gators team is as motivated, poised, and focused on the prize as any team in America.

I am happy to see these student-athletes winning and having fun – because that’s ultimately what this game is about. I am happy they had their third-largest margin of victory since SEC play opened in January. And I am happy the No. 1 ranking isn’t getting to them thus far.

No, the nets weren’t cut down after the Gators won the regular season SEC basketball title this week – much to some fans’ chagrin. That’s being reserved for something else, something better, and something more meaningful. First: the home finale against Kentucky. Next: on the court of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Finally: in Dallas nearly a month from now. Onward and upward – one game at a time.