Ever since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer proclaimed “we back, we’re all back” at the National Championship celebration the only questions about this basketball team were about the intangibles. Would they regret not taking the money? Would they come close to the same chemistry? Would they remain hungry and humble? Would they stay unselfish?
After five games it’s clear to me the answer to all of those questions is a resounding YES! Certainly Florida should have clobbered North Florida, Jacksonville and Prairie View easily, but Samford and Chattanooga are solid teams and those games should have been more challenging. Instead Florida has dismissed all five opponents in similar fashion using suffocating defensive pressure and explosive transition offense. After stumbling around for a couple of minutes Tuesday night and falling behind (15-13) for the first time all year the Gators outscored Prairie View 81-to-18 the rest of the way.
No that’s not a typo; it was 81 to 18 over the final 34 minutes of action. That’s damn near impossible when you think about it. Look at it this way, a 9-2 run is a pretty nice run, right? Well how about nine consecutive 9-2 runs? That’s truly remarkable and shows that they are playing with hunger and with energy no matter what the score.
Early in the second half against Prairie View the Gators were already up more than thirty points, but there’s Joakim Noah, grabbing rebounds, slamming the ball and exhorting the crowd and his teammates. How can anyone not play hard when the Most Outstanding Player of the previous season’s Final Four is displaying such passion? Short answer, they can’t.
Balance, Unselfishness Remain in Place
The Gators had all five starters average in double figures last year, but so far this year that has not been the case. Corey Brewer (9.8) and Lee Humphrey (9.0) are coming up short in that area, but that’s more a function of playing time than anything else. Brewer is playing 5.7 fewer minutes a game while Humphrey is spending 8.5 fewer minutes in the floor. If their playing time was the same as last year, their scoring would be right on target with what they produced in 2005-06.
The Gators are also showing that success has not gone to their heads in terms of putting self ahead of team. Florida is averaging 21 assists per game, four more than last year while committing just a dozen turnovers a night, three fewer than last year. Once again all five starters enjoy a positive assist/turnover differential, led by Taurean Green’s 3.6-to-one (18/5).
Freshmen Finding Their Niche
The five easy wins have given Florida’s four freshmen a great chance to demonstrate what they are capable of and the early reviews are excellent. Dan Werner has some of the all court skills of a Mike Miller, though he’s not the athlete Miller is. Marreese Speights is an excellent athlete with a variety of moves and can really get off the floor. Jonathan Mitchell has a great feel for the game as shown by a 6/1 assist/turnover differential and a team-leading ten steals. Brandon Powell has a nice stroke and an excellent build and will take a big leap forward next year.
As a group, the freshman are averaging 16 points and ten rebounds a game. They are plus-six in assist/turnover differential. Those are numbers that are sure to go down, but they are a sign of what’s to come.
Tougher Challenges Ahead
Florida will have to take it up a notch or two in several upcoming games, starting with Friday night against Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are a solid team and will reach Vegas with a 4-and-0 record. They were expected to make the NCAA Tournament last year until they were upended by John Pelphrey’s South Alabama Jaguars in the Sun Belt Tournament final. Western has an excellent shooting guard in Courtney Lee who is averaging almost 19 points a game. They have excellent depth, but size is an issue.
Then comes Kansas, but the Jayhawks are without big men CJ Giles and Alexander “Sasha” Kaun. Giles won’t be back, but Kaun will in a few weeks. Still, watching Corey Brewer against Brandon Rush is going to be a highlight.
Later on, Florida will play FSU in Tallahassee, UAB in South Florida and will host both Providence and Ohio State. By the end of the pre-conference schedule we’ll know even more about this team, these freshmen and what the SEC slate is likely to bring, but to this point the Gator Basketball team is making all the right moves.