Florida’s number one ranked Gators were already on edge, ready to play a game that actually counted Friday night when Coach Billy Donovan had them watch a video of Mike Tyson’s greatest hits. The message wasn’t lost on his team and it only ratcheted up the readiness to a brand new level, an unfortunate turn of events for the already outmatched Samford University Bulldogs.
“Coach Donovan put a Mike Tyson’s greatest hits video on before the game,” said Joakim Noah, whose box score line read 11 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, four blocked shots and one steal as the Gators opened their season with a sometimes spectacular 79-54 win before a crowd of 11,798 at the O’Connell Center. “When you put a tape like that on before a game, it doesn’t get any better than that in terms of getting ready. We were ready to knock them out early. We played four rounds tonight. I think we won all four. It was a solid performance.”
Solid didn’t even come close to describing the carnage. This is a Samford team that won 20 games last year and is expected to win the Ohio Valley Conference this year, a well-coached team that runs a very efficient Princeton offense. In their first game that actually counts since beating UCLA for the NCAA title last April, the Gators held Samford to 40.4 percent from the field, 35 percent from the three-point line, blocked 12 shots and outrebounded the Bulldogs 38-25.
“I felt we guarded their system about as well as you can guard it without having to play zone in the game,” said Donovan, who credited assistant coach Donnie Jones for putting together an outstanding defensive game plan.
The Princeton offense is like a wheel revolving around the high post and it’s designed to get back door layups and open three-point shots. Samford didn’t get its first layup off a successful back door cut until less than three minutes remained in the game.
“We just talked a lot about playing below your man so you’re right dead in front of him so that when he cuts, he’s cutting into your body and he doesn’t have an open space to cut into,” said Donovan. “The back door cuts we took away.”
Their offense hijacked by Gators swarming on the perimeter, Samford tried to go inside against the taller, more athletic Gators but that didn’t work either. Noah and Al Horford often looked like middle blockers at the volleyball net the way they were swatting away shots. Horford finished the game with 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, four blocked shots and two steals.
“If they tried to shoot it they were going to pay,” said Horford.
As good as the Gators played on defense, they might have been better on offense. They shot 58.5 percent from the field for the game (31-53) and 46.7 percent from the three-point line (7-15).
“I don’t know if the score reflects how well our guys played,” said Donovan. “When you have to play 30 seconds on every single possession and you have to do it for a 40 minute game, it puts a lot of pressure on you offensively to be very efficient. It was great to see us get back to a low number of turnovers, a high percentage from the field and a good percentage from the three point line.”
The Gators had 16 assists and only six turnovers and 12 of their 38 rebounds were of the offensive variety.
“When you grab 12 offensive rebounds and you shoot 59 percent from the field, you’re pretty efficient on offense when you’re doing that because the number of offensive rebounds just aren’t there,” Donovan said.
The efficient Gators were a real contrast to the inefficient efforts turned in against Northwood University and Barry University in a pair of preseason exhibition games. Florida came out on edge, ready to play.
“I enjoyed watching them play,” said Donovan. “The first two exhibition games I didn’t enjoy watching them play at all. I enjoyed watching them play tonight.”
Florida never was challenged in the two exhibition games, but the Gators didn’t exactly play hard and play with purpose. All that changed Friday night when the game actually counted. The Gators played hard at both ends of the court. They were unselfish, just like they were last year when they ran the table in the NCAA Tournament, and they played like they were having fun.
Even before the opening tip, Noah and Horford knew it was going to be a Florida kind of night.
“Al told me before the tipoff this is what we came back for, to play in this kind of environment, play back home, play when it really counts,” said Noah. “This was the first game of the season and we’re a team that loves to play when it counts. It was good to get that excitement back. It was a solid way to shot that the Gator Boys are for real. We’re trying to do something special here.”
Florida hit its first seven shots of the game, four from the three-point line and three easy shots on the inside. Point guard Taurean Green, fresh from a trip to the barber for a new short-hair look, hit three three-pointers in that opening run to get the Gators going. Green was 4-4 from the three-point line in the first half, finishing the game with 15 points, three assists and a steal.
It was 18-5 in the first six minutes of the game and 39-23 at the half. The Gators opened the second half on a 23-13 tear to pound out whatever life was left in the Bulldogs.
Green felt the Gators were simply ready to get a new year under way. They’ve heard all the talk for months about the NCAA title, but now the Gators are ready to move on.
“We were ready to start this new season, leave all the talk about last season behind us and focus on the new year,” said Green. “We can improve on a lot of areas and that’s the scary part. We can improve on a lot of areas and that’s the scary part. Once we get our bad habits and weaknesses out of the way, the sky’s the limit.”
Corey Brewer had some highlight reel plays offensively and defensively en route to a game high 19 points. He also had six rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot and one steal.
“We’re going to be playing like our life’s on the line,” said Brewer. “We’re going to come out with the same fire and intensity every game.”
HOOPS NOTES: Florida’s next game is Tuesday night against North Florida at the O’Connell Center (7 p.m. start) … Donovan is now 11-0 in season openers at Florida … It was win number 227 in Donovan’s career at UF, moving him within eight of Norm Sloan’s school record 235 wins … Lee Humphrey scored only four points in the game and didn’t hit a three-pointer. He played in only one game last year that he failed to knock down a three … Jonathon Mitchell and Brandon Powell led Florida’s freshmen in scoring with three points each. Marreese Speights had two points. Dan Werner didn’t scratch … Recently signed recruits Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons of Winter Park Lake Howell were at the game. The Parsons is up to 19 pounds since the AAU season ended in the summer. He’s tipping the scales at 199 now. Calathes, who is a legit 6-6, said he’s up to 188.