At this point in the season last year, we were still wondering if the Florida Gators were for real. That 17-0 start of the season caught everybody by surprise so no one knew for sure how good the Gators were until year’s end, when Florida was the king of the college basketball world. There are no surprises this season and that 16-2 record and number one ranking is about what everybody expects.
The Gators are winning and playing their best basketball of the season, plus they’re coming off their most decisive win, an 84-50 blowout of South Carolina in Columbia last Saturday that vaulted UF back into the number one spot in the polls. The Gators are rounding into shape and looking like a team quite capable of winning the NCAA championship a second straight season, but don’t think for even one second that this team thinks anything is going to be handed to them.
“Everybody’s hungry right now,” said Joakim Noah Thursday. Noah is averaging 12.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as the Gators prep for Saturday’s 1 p.m. Southeastern Conference showdown with Ole Miss at the O’Connell Center.
Just like they did last year, all five starters are averaging in double figures. Taurean Green leads the way for Florida at 13.6 points per game and he’s also averaging 3.9 assists per game. Green has a nearly 2-1 assists to turnover ration which is outstanding.
As a team, the Gators lead the nation in shooting (54.5 percent) and rank seventh in three-point shooting (42.6 percent). Florida is tenth in assists per game (18.3), seventh in rebound margin (9.2 more rebounds per game than opponents) and first in the nation in scoring margin (25.9 points per game).
It looks very good on paper but Noah knows the Gators have plenty of room to improve to reach their goal, which is to repeat as NCAA champions. The last time that was done was Duke (1991-92).
“I always felt that we’re going to be contenders,” said Noah. “I felt that at even the beginning of the year. Now it’s about grinding. We’re still not where we need to be in order to win a championship but we’re definitely on the right path and right now that’s the path we need to be. We’re all of the same mindset and that’s just grinding it out day in and day out.”
The Gators have won nine games in a row since they lost in Tallahassee to Florida State back in early December. Florida played that game without Corey Brewer (mononucleosis) and with Noah under the weather with a lingering bronchial infection. Since then, Al Horford suffered a high ankle sprain that made him sit two full games. He’s only now starting to feel close to 100 percent again.
“It feels good when your team is at 100 percent,” said Noah. “It’s always good to have everybody back and healthy and we haven’t really been a healthy team to this point so it feels to have everybody back and playing at a high level.”
The greatest impact of five healthy players has been seen on the offensive end where the Gators are playing like a real unit now. They’re coming off a game against South Carolina where they shot 64 percent from both the field and the three-point line.
“We’re figuring out it’s all about executing and we’re back to playing really unselfish on offense, giving the extra pass,” said Horford, averaging 12.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while leading the team with 31 blocked shots. “We’re just trying to get back on track like we were last year.”
By sharing the ball and getting everybody involved in the offense, the Gators are very difficult to defend. Noah says the Gators are at their best when they’re making good decisions with the ball. He says it’s not about getting a bunch of shots, but getting everybody involved and getting good shots.
“I think that’s been one of our strengths is knowing what a good shot is,” he said. “I feel like even a guy like Chris Richard would start on so many other teams. If I played on another team I would probably take more shots than I do here but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about winning. That’s what it’s all about, sacrificing for the benefit of the team.”
From a defensive standpoint, the Gators are starting to play lock down defense on the perimeter. With Horford and Noah on the inside, the Gators don’t give up many good looks in the paint which makes playing tough perimeter defense a must. At the beginning of the year, the Gators gave up too many open looks from the outside but they’re giving up fewer openings each game since the pre-Christmas break.
“I feel like we’ve definitely improved defensively,” said Noah. “Guys know where they have to be on the court compared to in the beginning I feel like it was almost like we were supposed to know but we really didn’t work on it in practice. Over the break when we didn’t play for a couple of weeks, coaches really emphasized the blitzing and the half-blitzing and when to go double and where the right rotations and stuff. Guys forgot that. We’re definitely doing a much better job of that right now.”
Horford says the key for the Gators is to remember that shots don’t always fall but the team can play tough defense every single game.
“We can never get away from defending and rebounding,” he said. “That’s what wins ball games for us. We’re not always going to shoot this high. You can’t shut down every single guy but if you do we’re going to grind the game out by defending and rebounding.”