Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It wasn’t that long ago non-conference schedules were littered annually with waves of smaller conference fodder, as the Florida Gators used their pre-Southeastern Conference slate to forge identity, carve out individual roles and -- frankly -- pad the victory column.
Oh, the Gators certainly were willing to schedule some powerhouse teams (Syracuse, Ohio State, Michigan State, to name and few), rare in program history has there been a three-game gauntlet like the Marquette-Florida State-Arizona trifecta up next on the UF slate.
Then again, rare in program history -- maybe, never -- have the Gators played a non-conference schedule like the 2012-13 version UF athletic director Jeremy Foley and executive associate Mike Hill signed off on this season.
“Jeremy has talked about us playing the Lakers next season,” Coach Billy Donovan said last week after beating UCF, a 20-win team the last two years.
In that vein (and with apologies to Bradley Beal), there are certainly no dates against Wizards-like foes coming up, starting Thursday night when the seventh-ranked Gators (5-0) host Marquette (5-1) -- a rematch of last March’s Sweet 16 in the NCAA West Region -- in the Big East/SEC Challenge at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.
Then comes a road date at FSU, which won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament last season, followed by a cross-country trip to face Arizona, currently ranked ninth, thanks in great part to a freshman class rated second only to Kentucky's.
“That’s a pretty tough schedule, but I just think it’s challenging for us,” senior guard Kenny Boynton said. “It’s only going to strengthen us for the NCAA Tournament.”
Boynton has a point. The Gators haven’t even entered the paddle-wheel part of their schedule, yet their RPI ranking was ninth in the nation as of Wednesday.
It’s about to get higher.
“Time to find out what we’re made of,” junior center Patric Young said.
Starting with the Golden Eagles, a tough, hard-nosed bunch with four straight 20-win seasons, including a 27-8 record and No. 3 seed in the tournament last season.
The two best players off the ’11-12 team, forward Jae Crowder (Dallas Mavericks) and guard Darius Johnson-Odom (NBA D-League), are in the pros. That Marquette squad leaned heavily on those two guys, but Donovan said this edition of the Golden Eagles is more balanced and has the potential to be an even better team down the line.
Marquette’s lone loss to date came against Butler on a Hail-Mary buzzer-beater.
“The one thing that’s going to be the same for Marquette will be the style and the system,” Donovan said. “For us, that’s what we get prepared and ready for, and then the personnel inside that system. For us, that [NCAA] game, how much we can learn from it, I’m not really sure. That team is different from this team. Different players, different roles.”
One of the things that stands out about this Marquette team is the way it shares the basketball. Through six games, the Golden Eagles are averaging 17.7 assists per game compared to 12.2 turnovers. In Monday night’s 79-46 defeat of Maryland-Baltimore County, Marquette assisted on 28 of 31 field goals.
“That’s incredible,” Donovan said.
The UF coach says so knowing his team is struggling with assist-to-turnover ratio. The Gators, usually one of the better passing and higher-assisting teams in the Southeastern Conference, have 65 assists and 64 turnovers on the season. Twice this season, Florida has had more turnovers than assists in a game, including a season-high 20 against Wisconsin, when the Gators offset that generosity by shooting 62 percent from the floor.
“Anytime you’re giving up the ball, it’s affecting your offensive and defensive efficiency ... You’re not even getting a shot up, and Coach Donovan hates that,” said Young, who has 12 turnovers this season and along with guard Mike Rosario and forward Will Yeguete (13 each) is responsible for 59 percent of UF’s giveaways. “You have to realize how valuable the ball is.”
That’s why Donovan and his staff put premiums on taking care of the ball during practice this week, along with a drills that emphasized physicality. The Golden Eagles will be aggressive on defense -- in halfcourt and fullcourt pressure -- and will look to turn the Gators over and get out for easy baskets.
“We have to match their intensity,” Boynton said.
It’ll be a tall order.
So will Florida State.
And Arizona after that.
“When November and December are done, we’ll look at our non-conference schedule and say there hasn’t been a style, system or situation we haven’t had to deal with,” Donovan said. “I’d think ours has to be one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country.”
No. 7 Florida vs. Marquette
Tip-off: Thursday, 9 p.m. (O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.)
Records: Florida 5-0; Marquette 5-1
TV: ESPN2 (w/Dave Pasch and Fran Fraschilla)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: The game marks Florida’s representation in the SEC/Big East Challenge with a rematch of a Sweet 16 matchup of last year’s NCAA West Region at Phoenix when the Gators, seeded seventh, upset the third-seeded Golden Eagles, 68-58. ... UF is searching for consistency, having been red-hot on offense one night, not-so another; great on defense most nights, not good at all last time out. Still, Florida is second in the nation in points per game, allowing just 48.4, one of only five teams surrendering less than 50. The Gators, however, are coming off their worst defensive effort of the season, giving up 46.8 percent from the floor and 55 from 3-point range in a 79-66 defeat of UCF. ... Senior G Kenny Boynton (16.2 ppg, 5 rpg) is UF’s leading scorer, but his time at point guard figures to be lessoned with junior Scottie Wilbekin (9.7 points, 4.3 apg) back in the flow after serving a three-game suspension for violating team rules. Wilbekin posted career highs in points (17), rebounds (5) and assists (8) against UCF. ... The Gators have three other starters averaging in double-figures, including F Erik Murphy (12.8 ppg), G Mike Rosario (11 ppg) and C Patric Young (10.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg). Junior Will Yeguete (6.8 points, 7.8 rpg) continues to be a factor in his first season starting at the small forward, but alternating among all three frontcourt spots. ... Marquette is coached by Buzz Williams, who has guided the team to the NCAA Tournament in each of his four seasons and averaged 24 wins. ... The Golden Eagles lost their two best players (F Jae Crowder and G Darius Johnson-Odom) off last year’s 27-win squad, but return a trio of starters, led by 6-7 F Jamil Wilson (11 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and PG Junior Cadougan (7 ppg, 5 apg). Marquette’s leading scorer, however, comes off the bench. That’s 6-8, 290-pound Devante Gardner (14 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who the Gators would love to run to the point of exhaustion. ... Wilson and Gardner are shooting 58.5 and 55 percent, respectively, one of the reasons the Golden Eagles are making better than 49 percent from the floor on the season.