As the season has progressed and the winning streak has stretched to 16 games, it is inevitable that the comparisons between this year’s 3rd-ranked Florida Gators (22-2, 11-0 SEC) and Florida’s 2007 team, which won a second straight NCAA championship. Although the Gators have made it to the Elite Eight game in the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years, this is probably the best team that Billy Donovan has put on the floor since that second championship team.
The records are similar – both were 22-2 at this point of the season – but when it comes to personnel, the differences are obvious and certainly tilt in favor of the 2007 team that featured three lottery picks (Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah) in the starting lineup along with guards Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey, who have found steady employment playing in the European Leagues. All four subs off the bench – Chris Richard, Marreese Speights, Walter Hodge and Dan Werner – also played professionally with Speights continuing his career in the NBA and Hodge playing in Europe.
This year’s team starts four seniors – Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete – who will probably all play professionally although Young seems the only one who will likely start his career in the NBA. There are no lottery picks among the starters and the only Gator who has been mentioned as a potential early first rounder is freshman Chris Walker, who has taken baby steps on the court in his first three games since gaining eligibility.
From a talent standpoint, there is not much comparison of the 2014 Gators and the 2007 team, but talent isn’t the only thing that makes a team great. Just like those 2007 Gators, this 2014 team does have that very strong element of chemistry.
“I thought they (2007) were a really, really connected group and I think this group has worked toward that,” Donovan said Friday afternoon before the Gators left for Lexington, where they will face the Kentucky Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 SEC) at Rupp Arena (9 p.m., ESPN) in the marguee game nationally. “I think they’ve worked very, very hard for their chemistry and to building closer relationships, understanding each other better. I think they’ve worked very hard in those areas to have a better bond. And, I don’t mean a bond like that our guys didn’t get along last year, but you know, really getting a chance to know each other at a different level.”
What made the 2007 team exceptional was the cohesiveness of the starting five. They set the tone for the players coming off the bench. The same is true of Florida’s four seniors in 2014, who have all four worked their way up through the ranks. Unlike Kentucky, which will start five freshmen who were all McDonald’s All-Americans tonight, Florida’s four seniors all started their careers on the bench picking up minutes here and there.
All four have learned from their experiences to become a team that has proven it can handle just about anything thrown their way. That they have so much experience to rely on probably tells you why the Gators have been particularly good at grind it out games. The Gators don’t get flustered in the type of tight, physical games that seem prevalent when the season hits the home stretch
“I think like anything else, the more experiences you gain, the more you can learn from your experiences,” Donovan said. “I don’t know why that’s happened. We’ve had some games that we have been able to pull out. Again, you’re on the road at Wisconsin, you’re on the road at Connecticut, you’re playing neutral site against Memphis. Then you go on the road at Arkansas, you’re going to be in a lot of those games. Our guys have done a good job, I think, keeping their composure and continuing to play all the way through.”
THREE KEY MATCHUPS
SCOTTIE WILBEKIN VS. ANDREW HARRISON: Harrison is streaky and once he hits a couple of shots in a row, his confidence grows exponentially. He will try to drive Wilbekin into the paint and use his size (6-6, 215) to overpower either going to the rack or pulling up. Wilbekin’s job will be to force Harrison to his left and get up in his chest where he has trouble squeezing off a shot. Wilbekin can beat Harrison on the dribble all day long on the offensive end but his focus has to be on drawing Kentucky’s bigs to him so he can dish it off to Young, Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith on the inside.
WILL YEGUETE VS. JULIUS RANDLE: Randle will turn the ball over. He averages three a game. He’s going to go left, use his spin moves and try to draw contact. Yeguete’s task will be to keep Randle from putting the ball on the deck and force him to be a jump shooter.
MICHAEL FRAZIER VS. AARON HARRISON: Like his twin brother, Aaron Harrison gets in a funk if he can’t get going early on. He takes about four 3-pointers per game but gets to the foul line nearly five times per game. If Frazier can force Harrison to go left, he’s not nearly as effective shooting the jumper. It will be critical for Frazier to play good denial defense on the perimeter and he will need the help of double teams to keep Harrison from putting the ball on the floor. Once he’s in the paint, he will draw contact.
KENTUCKY (19-5, 9-2 SEC): Aaron Harrison (6-6, 218, FR); Andrew Harrison (6-6, 215, FR); Dakari Johnson (7-0, 265, FR); Julius Randle (6-9, 250, FR); James Young (6-6, 215, FR)
FLORIDA (22-2, 11-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, FR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)