Billy Donovan led his Florida Gators into the nationally televised showdown on Tuesday night with freshman sensation Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks as the No.19 ranked team in the AP Poll. Despite Wiggins’ career-high in points and first double-double as a Jayhawk, the Gators knocked off Kansas with a 67-61 win in Gainesville.
With that said, Florida has solidified themselves as true contenders despite a rocky start to the season to say the least. Thanks to eligibility issues, injuries, and suspensions, Donovan has yet to be at full-strength this season.
To start the season, the Gators were without Scottie Wilbekin and Dorrian Finney-Smith due to suspensions. Without the two in the line-up, Florida fell at the hands of Bo Ryan’s undefeated Wisconsin Badgers on the road by just six. Before Wilbekin could make his season début in the sixth game, freshman guard Kasey Hill sprained his ankle just four games into the season. With Hill still out, the Gators traveled to Connecticut to take on the Huskies, only to lose on Shabazz Napier’s second attempt at a buzzer-beater. To top it all off, McDonald’s All-American big man Chris Walker has yet to make an appearance for the Gators. Walker did not enroll in school due to the fact that he was not yet qualified, but rumor is that he will join the team at the semester.
However, the Gators had what was as close to their final roster as they’ve had all season on Tuesday. Wilbekin and Hill played their first game in the backcourt together, and Wilbekin proved to be the best player on the court in Gainesville despite all of the hype surrounding Wiggins. Although limited in minutes, Hill showed flashes of why many people close to the Gators program believe that he could be the best guard that Donovan has ever coached.
After falling behind early 10-3, Billy Donovan switched his defense to a 1-3-1 zone that proceeded to force 12 turnovers over the course of 17 possessions. Heading into Tuesday, the Gators had only used a zone defense during 47 possessions according to Synergy Sports Technology. Donovan led the Gators to the No.2 ranked defense a season ago, trailing only the Louisville Cardinals. When the Gators are at full-strength, their defense will consist of more length and athleticism, meaning that the potential is their for them to improve at that end of the floor.
Finney-Smith got a glimpse of what his role will ultimately be, an energy-providing sharpshooter off the bench. Against Kansas, he played that role perfectly, knocking down 4-of-6 triples.
Patric Young showed that he does have the ability to play “Bully Ball” on the block the way that everyone has waited to see up to this point in his career, and Casey Prather showed that he can be effective even on nights that his shot struggles to fall thanks to his length and work on the defensive end. Prather had his worst game offensively, going just 1-of-5 from the field for 12 points. Prior to Tuesday, he was the unanimous favorite for most improved player in college hoops.
Not to mention, the Gators are still without their best NBA prospect in Chris Walker. According to Chris Harry of Gatorzone.com, Donovan told him that Walker has finished his coursework, and if cleared this week, he could start practicing with the team as soon as Saturday. Given the fact that it will take Walker some time to get into shape and catch up with the speed of the game, it is too soon to truly gauge where the Gators will be come March. However, based on talent alone, look for them to be an extremely tough out come the tournament.