Now that the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs have everybody’s attention with that stunning hosing of Kentucky at Rupp Arena, maybe everybody is taking Billy Donovan seriously when he says that first game opponent North Dakota State is probably the toughest opening game opponent (8 p.m., Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Fox Sports Net/Florida TV) in his career at the University of Florida. The game is part of a doubleheader with Coach Amada Butler’s Florida women’s tea, which will host highly-regarded Xavier at 5:30 p.m.
Anyone that might have been taking North Dakota State lightly probably had some comeuppance Wednesday night when Gardner-Webb, a nine-game winner last year in the Atlantic Sun Conference, took it to Kentucky from start to finish in Lexington. Gardner-Webb jumped to a 14-0 lead and Kentucky never got closer than seven points. By the time it was mercifully over, Gardner-Webb had an unexpected 84-66 win and an even more unexpected ticket to New York for the semifinals of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament.
While the Gators were rolling to their second straight NCAA championship last year, North Dakota State was fashioning a 20-8 record that included some impressive wins on the road against more highly touted opponents. The Bison lost their coach to Colorado State but they return three starters that averaged more than 15 points per game.
The Gators, meanwhile, return one significant reserve from last year’s 35-5 team that won its final 10 games of the season. Junior Walter Hodge averaged 5.7 points per game as Florida’s top backcourt reserve last year. The Gators have three sophomores — 6-11 Marreese Speights, 6-7 Dan Werner and 6-7 Jonathon Mitchell — who saw mostly mop-up duty last year although Speights did get a few significant moments off the bench against Ohio State in the national championship game.
Starters Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer and Lee Humphrey are all gone from that team as is top front court reserve Chris Richard. In their place in the starting lineup will be Hodge, Speights and Werner along with freshmen Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas. Mitchell will be coming off the bench as will freshmen Adam Allen, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons. It’s the youngest team that Donovan has ever coached and the most inexperienced.
Calathes, who almost had a triple-double (18 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists) in one of Florida’s two exhibition games, knows that North Dakota State won’t back down because the team they’re facing has Florida stamped on its jerseys.
“I think we’re going to be ready for their team,” said Calathes Thursday afternoon. “I think they’re a really good team. What we can’t do is underestimate them.”
Last year, the Bison went on the road to post impressive wins against Princeton and Marquette. They lost white knucklers on the road at Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State.
North Dakota State will start four fourth-year juniors against the Gators. Point guard Ben Woodside (16.4 points, 5.1 assists per game) is the guy that makes the Bison go and he gets plenty of scoring support from forward Brett Winkleman (16.1 points, 6.8 rebounds per game) and shooting guard Mike Nelson (15.7 points, 2.9 assists per game). In the post, the starters will be junior Lucas Moorman (4.9 points, 6.2 rebounds per game), who knows how to throw his weight around, and 6-7 redshirt freshman Michael Tveidt.
Winkelman (20 points) and Nelson (19) led the way for North Dakota State in an 80-56 exhibition win over Bemidji State. Nelson (16) and Winkleman (15) led the way to a 79-66 win over Minnesota State-Moorhead. In both exhibition games, redshirt freshman guard Freddy Coleman came off the bench to score in double figures.
Calathes is impressed with what he’s seen of the first-game opponent.
“They really know how to play and they have a lot of older guys on the team,” said Calathes. “They can upset anybody.”
It has been a learning experience for Calathes, the two-time Florida Mr. Basketball from Lake Howell. Calathes earned McDonald’s, Jordan and Parade All-American status last year while teaming with Parsons to lead Lake Howell to the state Class 5A championship. The greatest adjustment has been getting used to the speed of the game.
“It’s the faster pace and you can’t take plays off,” said Calathes. “You have to use a lot more energy on the court and sometimes you need a blow. In high school you can play all 32 minutes, but now you can’t take off a play.”
What will make the transition to college basketball easier for Calathes than most freshmen is his versatility. He will start the game as the small forward, but he will also play the shooting guard and point guard positions.
“He’s kind of a position-less guy to me,” said Billy Donovan. “He can play the point, he can play the two, he can play the three. He’s got a real good understanding of what’s going on. He’s got a real good innate feel of how to play the game and I think he’s highly competitive. He’s got a tremendous eagerness to want to get better and improve. He wants to be a better player and he wants to help our team.
“I think that when he’s playing the right way, he has the ability to make the game easy for those around him.”
Offense has never been a problem for Calathes, but he’s learning to play defense now at a harder, faster pace. In the first half of the Gators’ exhibition win over Lynn University Monday night, the Gators gave up 7-15 shooting from the three-point line. In the Billy Donovan book, that’s a violation of one of the more serious rules. The Gators came out in the second half, determined to play better defense and that meant playing at a faster pace.
Calathes discovered that an improved pace on defense correlates to a better pace on offense. In the first 10 minutes of the second half against Lynn, the Gators were unstoppable on offense and they clamped down completely on the three-point line.
“In the first half we gave up too many threes,” said Calathes. “That’s one thing Coach told us. Don’t give up the three-point line. I think we let our guys open too much but in the second half they didn’t hit a three and the game opened up.”
Clamping down on the three-point line will be very important against North Dakota State, which runs a motion offense that gives Winkleman, Nelson and Woodside a lot of opportunities to launch. However, the Bison doesn’t live and die by the three. The offense gets as many easy shots as it opens up long range chances.
“They shot 50 percent from the field last year,” said Donovan. “They run a motion kind of style of offense. They have a lot of different guys inside their system that can beat you.”
Calathes understands that North Dakota State is capable of beating the Gators and he doesn’t want anything to spoil his first official game as a college basketball player.
“This is when it counts,” he said. “This is when you lay it on the line. We’ve got a tough North Dakota State team. We’ve been scouting them and we’ve got to play our game. If we don’t they could upset us.”