For some, it may feel like we’ve been here before. A Gator basketball team loaded with talent, but prone to some disappointments. Several times in the Billy Donovan era the Gators have had a top 3 seed and failed to make it out of the opening weekend. Several more times they’ve lost to teams ranked 7 or more seeds below them.
People may be having flashbacks of those years after the beatdown the Gators received from Kentucky in the SEC Championship game. So what makes this team different from those teams with high hopes and early exits from the NCAA tournament?
I really feel like this year’s team is a different type of squad than those others, like the Roberson/Walsh class that just never could quite get it done in March. Here’s what makes this year’s team different, and what gives them a chance to make a run rather than go one (or two) and done.
1. Less Reliance on Shooting
One of my favorite things about this year’s Gators team is their ability to win games that they shoot poorly in. I’m speaking specifically on outside shooting here, not just field goal percentage. In the past, the Gators have had to rely on good outside shooting to compete with other good teams, and have had to shoot well to win games against mediocre teams.
This year is different. For starters, the Gators have the best inside game they’ve had this decade outside of the National Championship years. Macklin of course developed into a reliable post presence, and Tyus and Young have played well in their time as well. Macklin’s ability to set up the inside-out game has been a huge help, and the interior passing of the bigs has been exceptional.
The other big difference on this front is the ability of our guards, and even Parsons, to create dribble penetration. The ability to drive to the basket is what makes and offense tick, and even though teams have been figuring out Erving Walker about (IE not fouling him as much and making him finish), both he, Boynton, and Parsons are a real threat to score when heading into the lane (so long as they’re not playing against particularly big/lanky guards), and that opens everything else up.
This year, the Gators won games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt where they shot around 30% or less from 3-point range. That wouldn’t have happened with many of those other Gator teams that were bounced from the tourney early.
For as much as the Gators won this year, they sure spent a lot of time trailing by large deficits. An 8, 10, or 12 point deficit is not insurmountable for this team, and in some cases is not even worrisome. When the Gators trailed by 12 against Kentucky in the SEC championship game, I felt like it was only a matter of time before the Gators made their run and got back in it, because they had done it so many times already this season. That ability to believe that they are never out of it, and always have a chance, is invaluable come tourney time when every team faces some adversity.
3. Spreading the Wealth
The Gators have a rather unique advantage that most other teams cannot claim. All 5 starters are legitimate scoring threats. It seems that in almost every game lately, all 5 starters have scored in double figures. We have our role players among them, like Tyus, but even those guys are legitimate threats to score on every possession.
Most teams have guys that are in there just for their rebounding ability, or just for their ball handling ability, or something like that. With the Gators, you have to legitimately guard all 5 guys as if they’re in there to score. The other advantage to this is that a star player having an off night doesn’t kill the team, as it would for UConn if Kemba Walker was having an off night or BYU if Jimmer was having an off night. If Boynton or Parsons or Macklin are having a bad night there are plenty of other guys there to get the job done.
While the Gators’ depth may not be the scoring threats that the starters are, they are some really quality players. Wilbekin, Young, and Murphy all give us valuable minutes and always manage to come up with some big plays, and even Prather and Yeguete have looked good as of late. Against Vandy in the SEC tourney, the starters were so gassed that our depth ended up playing large portions of that game, with a couple of stretches where four or even all five starters were out, and our backups were able to hang tough.
5. Offensive Rebounding
Along with the free throw shooting (to an extent), one thing that the Gators really got under control to turn this season around was rebounding. When the Gators rebound well, they typically have a lot of success, and with the exception of the title game they’ve rebounded very well since SEC play started. I don’t have any figures on me, but it seems like the Gators have gotten a lot more second chance points this year than they typically do. Having Parsons, a three that sucks up ten rebounds in many games, with several of those coming on the offensive end, is a huge part of that.
All of this is not to say that this team isn’t without its faults. The defense has been far less than extraordinary this year, especially down the stretch, and we struggle against teams with lots of long players. We also don’t have nearly the emotion and heart that the 06-07 teams were famous for, though few do.
However, with the traits I’ve listed above, combined with the remarkably favorable draw the Gators drew, this is one of those years where the Gators are destined to make a legitimate run, and not one of those years where the Gators are destined to disappoint early.