The challenge last week for the Florida Gators was to find a way to neutralize Ole Miss freshman Chris Warren, a lightning quick point guard who has already had quite an impact on the Southeastern Conference. The challenge Wednesday night for the Gators at South Carolina (8 p.m., Columbia, SC, Raycom TV) will be another SEC newcomer of a point guard. As quick as Warren is, Billy Donovan says South Carolina’s Devan Downey is even quicker and he’s more productive.
Although Warren, who is averaging almost 16 points per game, didn’t hurt the Gators (16-3, 3-1 SEC) with his scoring — only eight points on 3-11 shooting — but he did find open teammates early and often and his ten assists had plenty to do with Ole Miss squeaking by with an 89-87 win. As good as Warren was, Downey might be better. He’s certainly more experienced.
A transfer from Cincinnati, where he played as a freshman when Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was the interim boss, Downey sat out last season at South Carolina (9-8, 1-2 SEC). Now that he’s eligible to play, he has made an instant impact on the Gamecocks. He leads the team in scoring at 19.6 per game (second in the SEC), ranks third in the SEC in assists (Florida’s Nick Calathes leads) at 5.12 per game, leads the league in steals at 3.47 per game and he’s sixth in the league in free throw percentage (80.5 percent).
As good as those stats are, they are even better in the three SEC games so far. Downey is averaging 24.7 points, four assists and 4.33 steals per game in league play.
Stopping Downey will have to be the focus for the Gators. While Warren had the advantage of a couple of big, strong bodies who could finish on the inside, Downey plays on a more perimeter-oriented team. The Gamecocks don’t have that big inside presence, so they try to score in transition or when they are in the half court, find openings on the perimeter.
Everything South Carolina does offensively starts with Downey and he is also the key to their defensive pressure, too. Donovan is quite impressed with Downey’s quickness.
“I have great respect for Chris Warren’s speed from Ole Miss but I think Downey may be the fastest guy in our league,” said Donovan at his Monday morning press conference.
Downey is relentless the way he pressures in the backcourt but he more than holds his own defending in the half court game even though he’s only 5-9. On the offensive end, he not only can stretch a defense with the three-ball, but he can put the ball on the deck and shoot the pull-up shots effectively when opponents run at him and try to crowd him beyond the arc.
It’s that ability to impact the game in so many ways that impresses Donovan.
“Downey to me is a guy that gets steals; he disrupts defensively in the passing lanes; he’s got really good three-point range and he’s got a mid-range game,” said Donovan. “He can get to the basket. He’s really a hard guy to guard.”
The past four years, the Gators had their hands full with Tre Kelly, who made All-SEC as a point guard as a senior. Like Downey, Kelly was a scorer but Kelly relied more on getting into the lane to create shots while Downey is more of an outside scorer who gets a lot of points in transition thanks to his all-court defense.
“Tre Kelly wasn’t a guy to me that could really beat you with speed and quickness,” said Donovan. “He was a guy that would beat you with his body. He was a great driver and could make very acrobatic shots. Last year, they really solely relied on him. He put up some huge numbers and had some big, big scoring games. Downey is different. Now you have a guy that can really, really shoot the three. I don’t know if that was Tre Kelly’s strength. He got in the lane and used his body to shield you off.”
Downey has to be Florida’s focus on the perimeter, but he isn’t the only threat in the backcourt for the Gamecocks. South Carolina has the nation’s best three-point shooter in Brandis Raley-Ross (30-48, 62.5 percent), who comes off the bench and Georgia Tech transfer Zam Frederick (39-101 on three-pointers, who is averaging 15.3 points per game. Dwayne Day is another perimeter shooter capable of lighting it up from the outside.
South Carolina’s dependence on the three-ball — the Gamecocks average eight per game — means the Florida guard combo of Walter Hodge, Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas will all have to turn up the intensity on defense. South Carolina averages 75.9 points per game and almost a third comes from the three-point line. South Carolina is averaging eight threes per game and hitting 39.9 percent on three-point shots.
South Carolina is trying to develop a consistent second option on the inside to go with Dominique Archie, who averages 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Mike Holmes (7.9 points, 5.5 rebounds) has been sharing time at center with Sam Muldrow, a 6-9 freshman who is averaging 4.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Muldrow is South Carolina’s only real shot blocking presence.
On the inside, the Gators will hope that sophomore Marreese Speights can build on his best game of the year to make his presence known against South Carolina. Against Ole Miss, Speights was a dominator, scoring 16 points to go with eight rebounds and four blocked shots. Speights was an intimidating presence who played 31 minutes against Kentucky including the final five minutes of regulation and all five minutes of overtime without subbing out.
The Speights of the Kentucky game is what the Gators need to come away with a road win Wednesday night, not the Speights of the Ole Miss game, who scored four points and grabbed only seven rebounds. Overall, Speights is averaging 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. In the three conferences games before the breakout performance against Kentucky, Speights totaled 24 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.
A strong Speights presence on the inside would give the Gators an advantage against South Carolina, but Donovan doesn’t know which Speights will show up — the dominator or the passive Speights.
“Speights, for instance … who’s going to show up for us on Wednesday?” Donovan asked. “Who knows?”
Wednesday’s game in Columbia is the first of two for the Gators in a week in which they can begin to establish themselves as a legtimate threat to make the NCAA Tournament for the tenth straight year. A win over South Carolina in Columbia coupled with a win at home Sunday against Vanderbilt, would give the Gators a 5-1 record in league play with 10 SEC games to go. Twenty-plus wins and an 8-8 record in the SEC is the bare minimum for Florida to make it to the tournament. A better scenario would be 22 or 23 wins and nine or 10 wins in league play. That would pretty much guarantee the Gators would make it in.