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Gators forward Will Yeguete is one of the team's most physical defenders.

Wednesday January 29, 2014Gators Look to Take Defense on Road to Mississippi State

Gators forward Will Yeguete is one of the team's most physical defenders.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Sometimes there are themes. The “desperation” one worked splendidly last weekend against Tennessee, even though it’s only January.

Sometimes there is adversity, such as any injury that impacts the lineup, and an accompanying call to rally and pick up a teammate. Lord knows that one has been summoned this season.

Don’t forget the catch phrases. In the Florida basketball complex, references to “the process” and “living in the moment” come up often and are put to the players in a way to strive for consistency.

And then there are just plain numbers.

For the Gators (17-2, 6-0), who with their 11 straight wins skied to No. 3 in the Associate Press Top 25 this week, a road date at Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) may not appear particularly daunting. The Bulldogs have the lowest RPI of any team in the Southeastern Conference, checking in at a distant 240th. They’ve played the weakest schedule in the league -- one of the softest in the nation -- with their best win of the season, a four-point home defeat of rival Ole Miss, coming with Rebels mad bomber Marshall Henderson sidelined by a suspension.

So what can UF coach Billy Donovan do to get his players’ attention for their trip Thursday night to Humphrey Coliseum?

“I can show them these,” Donovan said, holding out his notes after practice Tuesday.

The first set belonged to his own team.

In eight games away from the O’Connell Center this season, the Gators have failed to meet their goal of holding opponents to .90 points per possession in six of them. The .90 figure is the standard Donovan and his assistanta seek and only in the neutral-site game against Fresno State did they hit it.

The other seven:

- at Wisconson: .98 (loss)
- at Jacksonville: .92 (win)
- at Connecticut: 1.0 (loss)
- vs Memphis: 1.14 (win)
- at Arkansas: 1.06 (win in overtime)
- at Auburn: .97 (win)
- at Alabama: .96 (win)

Even with a really good defensive effort against Fresno down in Sunrise -- the Gators posted a .884 in the 66-49 win -- that’s an average yield of .984 by the UF defense when out of the O'Dome. 

That's sub-standard for a team with high goals, starting with winning an SEC title.

"That’s just not good enough,” said Donovan, whose team smothered Tennessee 67-41 at home four days ago, and posted a season-best .67 defense efficiency rating against the Volunteers. “You’re not going to be able to sustain that every single game, but the goal is to be under .90. We’ve done that at home, but we haven’t been great on the road yet. That’s the challenge for this game.”


And there are more numbers woven into the challenge.

Mississippi State has attention-grabbing offensive digits at the “Hump.” The Bulldogs have averaged 80 points in three SEC games on their home floor, with six players averaging in double double-figures and the team shooting 39 free throws a game.

“We’re playing in someone else’s confines,” Donovan said. “They’re more comfortable there.”

It’s a fact that teams play (and especially shoot) better at home. So even though the Gators have come a long way since early in the season -- when Donovan called them out as a vastly inferior defensive team than the one he had a year ago -- there’s plenty of room to grow after just a third of the SEC season.

“As a team, we keep improving, keep getting better, we know it’s going to be a process,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. “Hopefully, we can keep making strides on defense.”


GATORS HOOP SCOOP
No. 4 Florida at Mississippi State  

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Fla.
Records: Florida 17-2 (6-0); Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3)
TV: ESPN2 (w/Rece Davis and Bobby Knight)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Bill Koss)
Game notes: Florida notes; Mississippi State notes

THE TIP-OFF

History: Florida leads the all-time series 60-49, including a 13-8 record under Coach Billy Donovan. Among Donovan’s 5-4 mark at Starkville is the 82-47 thrashing the Gators put on the Bulldogs last year, led by 18 points from Mike Rosario and 17 from Erik Murphy.

Pre-game storyline: The Gators are alone atop the Southeastern Conference standings, but need to win to maintain their lead on second-place Ole Miss and, after that, Kentucky and Georgia, each with two losses. UF already has won three league games away from home.

The players: Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II (12.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is coming off two games that earned him SEC Player of the Week honors. Frazier averaged 17.5 points and 2.5 assists, combining to go 8-for-19 from 3-point range. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin’s assists aren’t going to wow anyone (just 2.6 in SEC play), but the UF offense is moving better and the team's assists are being more evenly distributed. ... Casey Prather (16.8 ppg, 5.4 ppg) was 11-for-23 from the floor last week. Most forwards would take, but those numbers actually pulled down Prather’s field-goal percentage (now .615) for the season. His 6-for-16 night at Alabama (.375) was only the fifth time he’d been under 50 percent in a game in his senior season.

The opponent: The Bulldogs have played the SEC’s weakest schedule -- and it’s not even close. MSU’s strength of schedule is ranked 240th, with the league’s next lowest being Missouri at 142. The most challenging non-conference opponent on the slate was UNLV, with dates against the likes Prairie View, Kennesaw State, Mississippi Valley State, Jackson State and Loyola (Ill.). Thus far in SEC  play, the Bulldogs have beaten Auburn and Texas A&M, split with Ole Miss (minus Marshall Henderson) and been drummed at Kentucky and Alabama. ... MSU is in its second season under Coach Ricky Ray and have already passed last year’s win total (10), thanks to that schedule. ... Guard Craig Sword (13.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) leads the team in scoring, but the Bulldogs have three others in double-figures, among the frontcourt duo of 6-9, 270-pound Gavin Ware (11.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and 6-8, 231-pound Colin Borchert (10.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg) ... The Bulldogs do a good job of forcing turnovers, forcing 15.6 per game (2nd in SEC), but they rank at the very bottom of the league in rebounding margin (minus-1.4), 3-point field-goal percentage (30.9) and free-throw percentage (65.3).

Key numbers:

* 12 - Years since Mississippi State lost a second straight home game to Florida. The Gators beat the Bulldogs in 2001 and 2003. 

* 30 - Average margin of victory in UF’s two wins over MSU last season. In addition to the 35-point blowout at Starkville was a 83-58 win at Gainesville.

* 38.8 - UF’s opponents’ field-goal percentage, which ranks 21st nationally.

* 46.3 - Florida’s field goal percentage, which ranks second in the SEC and 82nd nationally.

* 1989 - The last year UF won a fourth straight in the series. The Bulldogs have not lost four in a row to the Gators since dropping 12 straight from 1984-89. 

Watch for it: The Bulldogs shoot a lot of free throws at home, so pressing a whole bunch -- assuming the Gators are making shots and can set up their full court defense -- would seem like an antidote to discourage MSU halfcourt offense (and drives by those guards). It sure worked against Tennessee, but the Bulldogs have better backcourt players and they're capable of getting out in transition with all the steals they force. Still, UF will try and hurry up play and get pace to its liking.

 

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