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Monday November 11, 2013Grow up: Gators Seek Better Defense From Young Guards at Wisconsin

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

MADISON, Wis. -- Watching it live was tough enough, but Billy Donovan viewed tape of his team’s season-opening win against North Florida over and over and over.

Worse, he made his players watch it over and over.

Florida’s perimeter defense was so bad, the Gators’ young guards so out of position, no one would have blamed Donovan, the Rick Pitino protege, if he’d lit into his players at practice the next day like so:

“Scottie Wilbekin is not walking through that door, people!”

Not now, anyway.

In the interim, the 10th-ranked Gators (1-0) were hard at work the last three days trying to fix the mess that was UF’s pick-and-roll and 3-point defense in time for Tuesday night’s game against 20th-ranked Wisconsin at sold-out Kohl Center. The Badgers are mad-cutting team with long-distance shooters at all positions, having demonstrated as much by bombing 11 in their season-opening win against St. John’s.

“If we play like we did Friday, we have no shot,” Donovan said.

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill played his first college basketball that day. Defensively, it showed. Ditto for sophomore DeVon Walker, who got his first career start and promptly was benched for a defensive lapse two minutes into the second half. He stayed there the rest of the game. Even Michael Frazier, a sophomore who should no better, was no better.

“We just weren’t on edge. We were too, like, relaxed,” Frazier said. “I wasn’t up and ready to come off the screen. We weren’t getting over screens. We put our big men in bad positions.”

Much was made of Patric Young’s final stat line -- two points, two rebounds -- but UF’s 6-foot-9 center, one of the best low-post defenders in the country, had to cover twice as much ground trying to cover the guards’ inability to to execute their assignments.

“I learned you can’t relax,” Hill said. “Not even for one second.”

Like the time Hill was too slow working back through a screen. Young did his job, showing on the ball, but when Hill was late, the lane came open.

“And he drove it,” Hill said.

Too much of that went on. To much sleeping behind the 3-point line, too.

These are basic defensive concepts the Gators drill over and over daily, yet not to the satisfaction of their coach. And it’s not like he didn’t warn them.

“Our communication was so bad, and it killed us,” Walker said. “What it taught me is that you have to listen to your bigs. It’s not just you guarding the pick and roll, it’s your team doing it.”

Walker shook his head.

“After that game, it was crazy,” he said. “It didn’t even feel like we won.”

The Gators, though, withstood the barrage of treys from North Florida. The timing could not have been better, actually.

After all of Donovan’s warnings, now he had proof. 

And a teaching moment.

The tape of the UNF game, followed by Wisconsin tape showing 46 percent from the floor and 47 percent from distance, well, it made for quite a double-feature. Donovan hopes he got his point across as the Gators venture into one of the toughest venues to play in America. UW is a disciplined team that can really execute in the halfcourt, is running more than it has in the past and can make you pay if given looks from the arc.

“They're a really good, hard driving team and they shoot 3s,” said Donovan, whose Gators allowed a combined 40.7 percent on 3-pointers in the first game and exhibition for Division II Florida Southern a week earlier. “You've got to have a great level of awareness. You've got to be in the right position and you've got to know what they’re doing with their movement. They're very, very efficient and very effective.”

Or as Frazier put it, “If we don’t come focused and ready to play defense, they’ll carve us up.”

Last year, the Badgers came to the O’Connell Center and the Gators played spectacular team defense. But that was with a senior-heavy group that included Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy. None of them were great one-on-one defenders, but through experience they knew what to do and where to be.

Florida has seniors this year too, but three play in the frontcourt. The fourth, Wilbekin, is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation, but currently suspended.

He’s not walking through that door, people.

“I learned a good lesson, man. A tough one, but a good one,” Walker said. “Once you get a starting role, you’re held accountable. There’s a level of expectation that must be met. I let my teammates and coaches down. I don’t want to feel like that again.”

No. 10 Florida at No. 20 Wisconsin  

When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Records: UF 1-0, UW 1-0
TV: ESPN2 (w/Bob Wischusen and Dan Dakich)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Wisconsin notes


History: UF leads 2-1, including last year’s 74-56 victory in Gainesville that represented the front end of this home-and-home series. The Gators won behind 24 points from F Erik Murphy, who was a perfect 10-for-10 from the floor. Florida’s last trip to Madison was nearly 46 years ago. The Badgers defeated the Gators 86-81 on Dec. 20, 1967.

Pre-game storyline: Florida will play a second game without senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith and junior center Damontre Harris, each of whom remain on the indefinite suspension list for violating team rules. That means Coach Billy Donovan gets to see how some of his younger players, namely freshman PG Kasey Hill (15 points, 4 assists) and G/F DeVon Walker (4 points, 1 rebound), not only bounce back from a poor defensive showing Friday against North Florida, but also how they respond to big roles in a very hostile venue. 

The players: The Gators got a huge night from senior F Casey Prather in their season debut. Prather finished with a career-high 29 points on 10-for-15 shooting, but the Badgers will be a bigger bunch inside and far more willing to challenge his athleticism. ... Senior C Patric Young knows he needs to score more than two points and grab more than two rebounds, as he did against the Ospreys. Just as key for Donovan is to see Young bring the end-to-end energy he feeds off of at home into a place like the Kohl Center. ... Sophomore G Michael Frazier (19 points, 9 rebounds), coming off mononucleosis, was supposed to play 8-10 minutes against UNF, but ended up playing 24. Look for him to be in the starting lineup alongside Hill in the backcourt.

The opponent: Year in, year out, the Badgers contend for Big Ten championships and this version should be no different. UW, which Friday defeated St. John’s 86-75 at Sioux Falls, S.D., has a 7-footer in Frank Kaminski, who can step out and shoot 3s, part of a crew that went 11-for-23 from the arc against the Red Storm. The backcourt, led by PG Ben Brust (15 points, 4 rebounds), is better with the return of Josh Gasser (19 points, 8 rebounds), who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. Sophomore F Sam Dekker (16 points, 7 rebounds), who Donovan knows well having coached him on the USA U-18 in the summer of 2012, is a savvy player, always on the move, and a threat to score from anywhere.

Key numbers:

2 - Number of times the Badgers beat Michigan last year. Yes, Gators fans, that Michigan. The one that crushed UF 79-59 in the Elite Eight.

5 - Total players from the six major conference that scored at least 29 points (like Prather did) in the first two days of the 2013-14 season.

17 - Consecutive free throws the Gators converted to start the UNF game on the way to making 27 of 32 for 84.4 percent. That marked UF’s best free-throw percentage in a game since going 29-for-34 (85.3 percent) at Arkansas on Feb. 18, 2012.

.500 - Donovan’s winning percentage in 18 games against the Big Ten Conference during his 18 seasons at UF.

.910 - Wisconsin’s all-time winning percentage at Kohl Center, the fourth-best in the nation. The Badgers are an astounding 181-18 at Kohl, including 90-7 against non-conference opponents.

Watch for it: The fact the Badgers scored 86 points against St. John’s is eye-opening, considering the deliberate way Coach Bo Ryan likes to play. Wisconsin will milk the shot clock for 30-plus seconds and make the Gators defend them, showing however much patience it takes to get the look it wants. 


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