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Friday December 14, 2012A Contrast in Styles: Gators Head West in Intriguing Top 10 Matchup with Arizona

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Going on five weeks into the college basketball season and 14 Division I teams remain undefeated. That’s a bunch. It’s a group that ranges from top-ranked Indiana all the way down to Eastern Kentucky of the Ohio Valley Conference, with the likes of Duke, Syracuse, Michigan and Cincinnati sprinkled in between. 


Oh, yeah. Fifth-ranked Florida (7-0) and eighth-ranked Arizona (7-0) are in there too and just so happen to be playing Saturday night at the McKale Center in a game being billed as one of the best non-conference match-ups of the year.  


And without question, one of the more ambitious in UF basketball history. 


The Gators haven’t ventured this far west for a non-tournament (and true road) game since traveling to Stanford in 1990. Neither of those teams were ranked, however, nor was ESPN in the house to trumpet a showdown that features all the marquee appeal of an NCAA regional final. 


Unless, of course, you’re talking to the coaches and players on the two teams. 


“It’s another game,” UF senior forward Erik Murphy said. 


Or as Wildcats guard Nick Johnson put it: “It’s another game.” 


In the grand scheme of things, yes, that’s all it is. No win is going to make either team’s season. No loss is going to ruin it. 


But these sorts of games are fun this time of year and rarely involve a pair of unbeaten giants of the industry. 


“This is not an NCAA Tournament game in March,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, who has the Wildcats off to the program’s best start in 14 years. “It’s just a huge non-conference game for both teams and represents a great opportunity.” 


Florida is playing some of the best defense in the country, allowing opponents an average of just 48.5 points per game and has won all its games by double-digits. Arizona counters with one of the nation’s best scoring, 3-point shooting and rebounding teams. 


So, yes, this one shapes up as a very good December barometer for where both squads might from here -- and perhaps how far they go down the line. 


“I think you can learn something about your team from every game,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “And you can find out a lot more about your team traveling all the way across the country to play a really, really talented team like Arizona.” 


This Wildcats came to Gainesville last year and took the Gators to overtime before UF prevailed 78-72. That Arizona squad went on to finish 23-12 and play in the NIT.


This one is much better. 


In addition to returning two starters, including All-Pac-12 forward Solomon Hill, the Wildcats added senior point guard Mark Lyons, an instant-eligible transfer from Xavier, plus a group of freshmen ranked among the top signing class in the nation. Two of those rookies start in 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley.


Last weekend, Arizona went across country to play a true road game at Clemson and despite racing to a big early lead needed to storm back from six points down in the second half and -- thanks to a 25-7 run over 10 minutes -- beat the host Tigers 66-54. Clemson scored just two field goals in the final eight minutes.  


Now the Gators, with just one true road game under their belt in last week’s 72-47 trampling of rival Florida State, get to test themselves at one of college basketball’s great venues and against one of the elite programs of the last quarter-century. 


After winning seven games by an average of 25.3 points, this one doesn’t figure to unfold so easily.


“I wouldn’t say anything has come easy,” Murphy said. “It may have looked easy, but I think that’s just a product of what we’ve been doing and the hard work we’ve put in. We just have to keep sustaining that.” 


The emphasis on defense (and rebounding) wasn’t lessoned at practice this week, that’s for sure. 


As he’s been known to do -- “I love it because the players hate it.” -- Donovan pulled out the infamous bubble this week, the one that covers the basket, and staged a couple blood-bath practices that emphasized boxing out and playing big on every possession. 


“Coach D just tells us every game that we can’t slack off or have any slippage in practice,” junior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We try to go hard. He’s constantly pushing us to go even harder so that we don’t take any days off and lose any time that could be spent getting better.”


That philosophy goes for any of the combinations the Gators roll onto the court; and there are many. 


One of the reasons Florida has been so difficult to match up against thus far has been its ability to play from any template. Donovan has used a handful of rotations -- go big, go small, go conventional, go fast, go inside, go with shooters -- and kept opponents off-balance by checking in and out and then back of his man, zone and full-court pressure defenses. 


Opponents don’t know when they’re coming, so it keeps them off balance. 


“When you put them all together, their sum is much better than their individual parts,” Miller said. “They can do it all and they do it all really well.” 


Now, the Gators want to find out if they can do it all (and well) on a really big stage at a really, really hostile environment. 


Worth noting: Florida has never won a non-conference game road game against a top-10 team. 




“I think we’re excited about this game, but at the same time it’s just another game,” Wilbekin said. “But we want to win every game.” 




No. 5 Florida at No. 8 Arizona          

Tip-off: Saturday, 10 p.m. (McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz.) 

Records: Florida 7-0; Arizona 7-0        

TV: ESPN2 (w/Dave Pasch and Miles Simon)  

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Arizona notes 

Need to know: This is the second-deepest into a UF schedule an undefeated Gators team has faced an undefeated opponent, next to only the 2009 visit to Tampa when Florida played Syracuse when both were 8-0 and ranked in the top 10. ... The Gators are playing their first true road game against a Pac-10 opponent since being shipped to face Arizona State in the NIT following the 2007-08 season. ... Florida is 7-0 for the fifth time in program history: 1951, 1984, 2005 and 2009. The last time the Gators made it to 8-0 was that ’09 game, but the Gators lost to Syracuse. ... UF ranks in the top 10 nationally in four statistically categories: scoring defense (48.3/2nd); scoring margin (plus-25.3/3rd); opponent’s rebounding (28.0/6th) and opponent’s field-goal percentage (34.9/7th). ... Senior G Kenny Boynton (14.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) needs 10 points to become the fifth player in UF history to reach the 1,700-point plateau. ... Given the Wildcats’ size, logic suggests the Gators will start with their big lineup of 6-9 C Patric Young (10.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg), 6-10 F Erik Murphy (11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 6-7 F Will Yeguete (7.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), with Boynton and Mike Rosario (11.4 ppg) in the backcourt. Don’t be surprised, though, if UF opens with its three-guard lineup and puts Scottie Wilbekin (7.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) on Arizona G Mark Lyons (13.4 ppg, 2.6 apg), the senior transfer from Xavier who torched Clemson last week for 14 of his 20 points in the second half. The Gators twice faced Lyons during his time with the Musketeers and obviously had a good scouting book on him. In those two games, Lyons was a combined 2-for-16 with five assists and four turnovers, as Xavier won in Gainesville in February 2010 and Florida won at Cincinnati (snapping the Musketeers’ 30-game home winning streak) in December 2010. ... Florida’s defensive pressure will be key in the game, as Arizona has been prone to turnovers, having committed 27 in a win over Southern Miss. Lyons has just one more assist (19) than turnovers (18) from his point guard spot. ... The Wildcats have two starters back from last year’s 23-win squad in F Solomon Hill (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and G Nick Johnson 13.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), but added size in 7-0 C Kaleb Tarczewski (6.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and 6-8, 235-pound F Brandon Ashley (9.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), both freshmen. Ashley and 6-10 classmate Grant Jerrett  (5.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg) were McDonald’s All-Americans, while Tarczewski went to the same high school (St. Marks in Southborough, Mass.) as UF’s Murphy. 



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