Tuesday night just happened to be Mardi Gras (aka Fat Tuesday) around the world. As someone who lived in New Orleans for two years, I had some NOLA expatriates, now in Atlanta, over to feast on delicious BBQ shrimp, homemade jambalaya, and (of course) king cake to celebrate the end Carnival season. When I invited them, little did I know that freshly mowed over South Carolina Gamecocks would be on the menu – but boy, were they ever.
The road warrior Gators, who continue to surprise me with their offensive explosiveness of late, steamrolled the Gamecocks, 72-46, and extended their winning streak to 22. This time, Michael Frazier II lit up the Columbia night sky with his bevy of three-point shots – 11 of them, in fact. Frazier was absolutely on fire, connecting with a staggering 11-for-18 from behind the arc, matching the highest point total ever notched by a Gator under Coach Billy Donovan. In the process, he also shattered the long-standing SEC record of nine three-pointers in a conference game.
After a close first-half that found them up only 28-26, the Gators launched an 18-to-0 run from which they never looked back. Florida eventually finished the blowout on a 33-11 run. Stop and think about that: outscoring your opponent 33-11. In a not so coincidental statistic, that point total by the Gators is the exact number scored by a team who connected on 11 three-pointers – the amount of downtown shots Frazier made. This is why I love basketball, folks.
The offense has come alive recently for the Gators, which is a (very) scary proposition for any opponent in their way. With some of the best screen, on-ball, and 2-3 defense being played in college basketball (especially by Scottie Wilbekin), if the Gators continue finding ways to score points like they have against LSU and South Carolina, they will be unstoppable. There isn’t a team as complete on defense right now, and if the offense is indeed congealing, opponents are going to find it impossible to compete with Florida at both ends of the court. Added alongside improved free throw shooting and expert second half adjustments, these Gators are the prohibitive favorites to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
While the game against South Carolina was not dominant in the paint (with a below 45% field goal average), the three pointers made this a runaway in the second half. Which brings me to a caution flag (albeit, a small one). As I mentioned earlier, the halftime lead was only two points – even after the Gators were 5-for-9 from three-point range. The misses came not only from Frazier (five in the first half alone), but by Wilbekin, Kasey Hill, and Dorian Finney-Smith. In a somewhat sobering statistic, Frazier was the only Gator to make any three-point shot all night. As the old axiom goes: if you live by the three, you will die (though, hopefully not) by the three.
Yes, Billy Donovan has made the proper winning adjustments this season time and time again – Tuesday night included. And though the Gators have played strongly in the paint for most of the season (Florida is No. 2 in the SEC with a 71 PPG and .521 FG percentage), on Tuesday they did not. Frazier was the only Gator to score in the double digits, which is fine if he can make the shots he did against the Gamecocks – but what happens when he can’t? One would hope another player would step up and complete the job, as has been the case all season. Still, they need to polish the edges of the offense to create a more dangerous, multi-dimensional team as we move into the most critical part of the season.
On Saturday in the O’Connell Center, Florida can become the first team in SEC history to own a perfect, 18-0 conference record in a single season. All that stands in the way is Kentucky, who, no matter the record, is always a tough team to play. This is one of the SEC’s most bitter basketball rivalries, and in this particular game Kentucky will be desperate for a quality win to boost its sagging resume for tournament seeding. This may not be your daddy’s Kentucky team, but do not underestimate them, Florida fans.
Undoubtedly, this will be a hard-fought game on an emotional day where Gator fans bid adieu to a senior class with the most wins in UF basketball history. Every opponent has brought its best game to play against Florida, and Kentucky’s best (as we all know) is always dangerous. However, this Florida team works hard to achieve its goals. If they play as they did against LSU and South Carolina, Kentucky will be dispatched handily.
This team is hard-working, under-the-radar, and (with apologies to Lexus) relentless in the pursuit of perfection. Opposing fans will chant “Geor-gia South-ern” like they did at South Carolina on Tuesday night, and like they did when I saw them play at Auburn. Many are still basking in the glow of the BCS football national championship won by FSU, and the numbers 4 and 8 will be hanging over Gator fans’ heads for a while – there’s no stopping or getting around that. Then again, there’s no stopping this Florida basketball team.
It’s a new season, new sport, and a new time. This basketball season, if you’ve not been paying attention, is incredibly special. Records are being broken, leaders on both sides of the ball are emerging, and we are witnessing one of the most accomplished groups of seniors (with over 100 wins, three straight Elite Eight appearances, and two probable first-round draft picks in Wilbekin and Patric Young) to ever play SEC basketball. As they say in the French Quarter down in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”