When Gators Are On, It’s Pick Your Poison

Joakim Noah understands how the Auburn Tigers must have felt Saturday. When they tried to sag and clog up the paint, Lee Humphrey lit them up from the three-point line. When they tried to take the three-ball away, the Florida Gators moved it inside where Al Horford put together a perfect, 6-6, night from the field. It was a pick your poison kind of night and whatever Auburn picked was wrong.

“You can’t leave that guy open,” said Noah, whose stat line read eight points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and two steals on a night when he was under the weather with the flu. “I don’t know why they do.”

Humphrey was 4-4 from the three-point line against Auburn, continuing a shooting tear that will likely shatter some records if he can maintain this pace the rest of the season. In six SEC games, Humphrey is hitting an astounding 71.9 percent on 23-32 shooting. In Florida’s 21 games, Humphrey is 56-116, 48.3 percent, which not only leads the SEC but is tenth in the nation.

When Humphrey is feeling it, he stretches defenses and that creates driving lanes and passing lanes. In his previous three seasons, Humphrey was pretty much just a jump shooter and there was little concern that he would put the ball on the floor and take it to the rack. With that added dimension, defenders have to lay off just a little bit and that has only helped Humphrey find more space to get his feet set so he can launch a three.

Noah says that when Humphrey is on, he presents the ultimate defensive dilemma.

“What do you want to take away?” Noah asked. “Okay, you want to take away his jump shot? It’s going to be easier for us inside.”

Humphrey wasn’t Auburn’s only dilemma. They had no luck stopping Taurean Green and Walter Hodge from the outside, either. Green went 3-5 from three-point distance while Hodge went 2-2. For the season Green is hitting 43.4 percent while Hodge is hitting a remarkable 60 percent (24-40). Humphrey, Green and Hodge are a combined 123-255 (48.2 percent).

It is all part of a very balanced Florida attack that has all five starters scoring in double figures (Green 13.7, Noah 12.6, Corey Brewer 12.7, Noah 12.6, Horford 12.1 and Humphrey 10.7). Noah (65.3 percent), Horford (64.6 percent) and Humphrey (53 percent) are all hitting better than half their shots while Green (49.7 percent) and Brewer (48 percent) are close to 50 percent.

As a team, the Gators lead the nation in field goal percentage (54.4 percent) and they’re fourth nationally in three-point shooting percentage (43.7 percent). Much of the good shooting can be attributed to exceptional ball movement. The unselfish Gators rank tenth nationally and first in the SEC in assists with 18.05 per game.

Against Auburn, the Gators had one of their best offensive games of the season. They shot 58 percent overall (29-50) from the field and 64.3 percent (9-14) from the three-point stripe.

“I thought we really did a nice job offensively against Auburn from start to finish,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “We complemented each other. We had good inside play and we had good outside play. We took good high percentage shots and we shot a high percentage.”

It was good. It was very good, in fact, but Noah says the Gators are capable of playing so much better.

“I feel like we played well offensively but we can still do better,” he said. “I didn’t feel it was one of those games when it’s like wow, we played unbelievable basketball. I felt we played solid. We played well but I feel like we can get better than that.”

The goal for the Gators from here on out is the same goal they began the season with: take each game one at a time and get better every outing. They understand that because they are the defending national champions that they’ve got the big target on their backs. Beat the Gators and it’s a season maker.

The Gators are 19-2 (6-0 SEC) but they haven’t lost a game when they’ve been at full strength. Losses to Kansas and Florida State were with a roster depleted by illness. Since the loss to FSU, the Gators have reeled off 12 straight wins, half of them against the SEC.

Noah says the Gators have succeeded because they haven’t taken opponents for granted. They view each opponent as a tough team capable of beating them if they don’t show up prepared and focused.

“I think our mindset is very good in our first six SEC games,” he said. “We’ve been very focused and ready to go before every game. I think we showed that against Auburn. We wanted to be the hungrier team. Auburn has been playing very tough and very aggressive and getting every loose ball. I feel like we did that. In the last two games against Mississippi State and Auburn we did that. Being the number one team in the country and having a big target on our backs. That shows something about this team when you see that we’re the aggressors and we’re getting every loose ball against teams who should be doing against us.”

The SEC schedule will reach the halfway point this week with home games against Vanderbilt (Wednesday) and Tennesse (Saturday). The Gators enjoy a two-game advantage in the SEC East, but it’s still early and definitely not time to put it in cruise control.

“The Gator Boyz are right where we need to be right now,” said Noah. “We’re number one in the country, we’re 6-0 in the league. I think we’ve been coming into the games with the right mindset.”

The right mindset means understanding that it’s a long season and that the team must keep its emotional edge.

“Coach used to always tell me when I was young it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and that’s what’s going on now,” said Noah. “It’s just taking it step by step. It’s not tournament time when it’s do or die but you have to play with an edge about you. When you lose that edge … we’re a mediocre team when we don’t play with fire and emotion.”

Noah doesn’t think the Gators will suffer an emotional letdown, and he thinks the best is yet to come for the Gators.

“I think that we’re hungry but we’re coming with the right mindset,” he said. “We’re coming focused and we’re definitely not underestimating our opponent. We’re playing our basketball. Are we playing our best basketball? But I feel like we’re definitely on track to do something good to get a ring.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.