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24 posts from February 2014

February 28, 2014

HOOPS: Chasing greatness

 

GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida clinched the Southeastern Conference league title before February ended -- its third outright championship in four years -- but these Gators' goals are far from complete.

They're striving for greatness.

Florida is in the midst of a 20-game winning streak and UF coach Billy Donovan's thematic message has been received, absorbed and echoed like a pirate's parrot.

Not even Jay-Z and LeBron talk about greatness as much as Florida's players.

"We’re trying to chase greatness," sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II said. "We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have [SEC league title] honor. But we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals."

Added forward Dorian Finney-Smith: "Every play, moment by moment, every possession you've got to strive for greatness. Take care of the ball, just do everything right. … We're just trying to strive for greatness. We're thinking about bigger things."

Earlier in the week, Donovan downplayed his team's No. 1 ranking and on Friday he acknowledged -- despite the league title -- UF's quest for a national championship is just getting started.

"I’m really, really proud of them, but I still think there’s more out there in front of us that we have a chance and opportunity to go out and try to chase," Donovan said.

“The league is not over. We still have three games remaining. We’re playing against a very, very talented, very good team in LSU tomorrow afternoon. I think our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played. Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well. … In a week or maybe a little bit longer the SEC Tournament will start, the post season will start, so this is something where we’re playing against some good teams and we have an opportunity to keep moving in that direction. I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team.”

The Gators host the Tigers on Saturday at 4 p.m. on CBS.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

Brunch Buffet: Gators clinch outright title

GAINESVILLE -- There's plenty of nourishment for everyone. 

THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?

The nation's top ranked men's basketball team clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title without even taking the court Thursday evening. 

No. 1 Florida earned a share of the SEC title following its win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, but with No. 17 Kentucky falling at home to Arkansas the Gators won their third outright league championship (2011, 2013, 2014) in the past four seasons. 

By virtue of winning the league title, Billy Donovan's team will be a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, have a double-bye and open the quarterfinal round Friday afternoon (March 14; 1 p.m.) in Atlanta (Georgia Dome). 

The Gators host the LSU Tigers this Saturday (4 p.m., CBS) with a chance to extend its 20-game winning streak and cut down the nets in front of their home crowd.   

DEPTH BOLSTERED

According to Florida's resident in-house wordsmith…

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We should have more on Hill's status later this afternoon after meeting with Donovan.   

BRACKETOLOGY No. 391,736.0

Couple updated mock brackets… The Gators are No. 1 seed in the South Region (Orlando) in Jerry Palm's latest field of 68. Florida also remains the top seed in the South Region in Joe Lunardi's updated bracket. 

FREEBIE FLAWS PERSIST 

Florida had a nice four-game stretch at the charity stripe before a dreadful performance at the line nearly cost the Gators in Nashville. 

UF's 12 attempts against Vandy were a season-low, while shooting 58 percent (7-of-12) from the stripe was its second-worst effort at the line this season. 

The Gators, thanks in large part to senior center Patric Young's dramatic improvement at the free throw line, had coupled four-straight games -- including three close road tilts -- over 77 percent. 

(at) Tennessee - 77.3 % (17-of-22)

(at) Kentucky 78.8 % (22-of-28)

Auburn 82.1 % (23-of-28)

(at) Ole Miss 78.9 % (15-of-19)

Young, a career 57 percent free throw shooter, is 26 for his last 34 (76 percent) at the charity stripe. 

FOOTBALL SCHEDULE UPDATES

Florida and Florida State officially renewed their annual series through 2018, UF announced Thursday. 

The two state rivals have played annually since 1958 and their current contract was set to expire after the 2014 season. The Gators will host the Seminoles in 2015 and 2017, while they will travel to Tallahassee in 2016 and 2018. 

Meanwhile, Florida also announced an addition to its 2015 schedule, adding a September 12 home game against East Carolina. This made a former Gator Clause blogger quite happy.

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LINK DUMP 

* A recap of UF's storylines following the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine

* The Curious Case of DFS - Late last week I called Finney-Smith UF's X-factor and following a dismal month he responded with a terrific (and game-saving) effort against the Commodores. DFS (19 points) outscored Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II combined (18 points). 

* Pro Day, anyone

* Following the Gators' annual Junior Day weekend, their 2015 recruiting class continues to grow. And grow. And grow.   

Enjoy the afternoon, everybody.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton 

February 26, 2014

Watkins shines at NFL Combine

 

GAINESVILLE -- While former Gators cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy garnered attention in draft gurus Todd McShay and Mel Kiper's initial first round mocks, it was Florida's most consistent -- and versatile -- defensive back last season who impressed during the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. 

Jaylen Watkins, an unheralded three-year starter with experience at safety, cornerback and nickel, ran a blistering 4.41 seconds official 40-yard dash, the fourth-fastest time among players at his position. Watkins also bench pressed 225 pounds 22 times, tied for tops among his positional peers. 

Watkins' 52 tackles in 2013 were third-most on Florida and Tuesday's solid workout further highlighted his talent in the eyes of NFL scouts. Following his impressive workout, he tweeted...

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Meanwhile, Roberson and Purifoy both saw their stocks dip following poor performances in Indianapolis. 

Purifoy, touted as an exceptional athlete and workout wonder, ran a stunningly-average 4.61 seconds 40-yard dash and managed just six reps on the bench press, fewest among all defensive backs. Roberson, who measured well (6'0", 191 lbs), also ran poorly (4.61) but did display solid leaping ability (37.5 inch vertical jump) and a nice 20-yard shuttle (4.08 seconds). 

Both prospects will have a chance to redeem themselves at Florida's Pro Day on March 17, but with injury concerns (Roberson), off-the-field question marks (Purifoy), inconsistent tape (both prospects) and popular performances by other top defensive backs (see: Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Bradley Roby), they could slip into the draft's middle rounds. 

In all, eight former Florida players participated in the combine, including linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell and tight end/h-back Trey Burton. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley attended the combine for measurements and interviews but did not workout as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. 

Burton ran well, posting a 4.62 seconds 40-yard dash (fourth fastest at TE) and a 7.14 seconds 3-cone drill (second fastest), but complete athleticism and positional concerns continue to be a uphill climb for UF's former Swiss Army Knife. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

I'll take: "BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM FOR $600"

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February 24, 2014

Unheralded wideouts commits to Florida

GAINESVILLE -- Add another to the list. 

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Payton is the third 2015 prospect -- and second wide receiver -- to verbally commit to Florida in the past four days, who held its annual Junior Day over the weekend. 

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound First Coast wideout is largely an unknown, holding a recent offer from UF despite not carrying a single star ranking at multiple recruiting services (Rivals, ESPN). 

Payton is Florida's fourth commit -- and third Jacksonville prospect -- in its 2015 class, joining Trinity Christian defensive back Deontai Williams, Bishop Kenny offensive tackle Tyler Jordan as well as Lake Nona receiver Deondre Farrier. 

Follow me on Twitter at JesseReSimonton

HOOPS: Gators climb to No. 1

GAINESVILLE --  Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 12.10.27 PM

For the first time since 2007, Florida, winners of 19 straight games, was voted No. 1 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll. 

The Gators (25-2, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) earned 47 of 65 first-place votes, sliding into the top spot thanks to a pair of losses by Syracuse. 

Unbeaten Wichita State (29-0) received 14 first-place votes and Arizona (25-2) earned the remaining four votes, prompting UF coach Billy Donovan to say, "On any given night there are a number of teams that could look like the No. 1 team in the country."

Florida hasn't reigned as the nation's top-ranked team during the regular season since February 2007, when a weekend shellacking (83-70) at Vanderbilt ended the eventual national champs' 17-game winning streak and No. 1 status. 

Coincidentally, Florida travels to Vanderbilt on Tuesday with a chance to clinch a share of the 2013-14 SEC title.

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton  

 

February 23, 2014

Gators add pair to 2015 class

GAINESVILLE -- Florida, hosting its annual Junior Day extravaganza, picked up a pair of verbal commitments for its 2015 class over the weekend. 

Three-star wide receiver Deondre Farrier (Lake Nona) and three-star offensive lineman Tyler Jordan (Bishop Kenny) both pledged their commitments to the Gators, according to multiple recruiting reports. 

Later, Jordan officially announced his decision on Twitter. 

Screen shot 2014-02-22 at 5.28.04 PM

Jordan, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound tackle, held offers from Georgia, Stanford, Ohio State and others, while Farrier, a 6-foot-1, 173-pound speedster, chose the Gators over South Florida, Kentucky, Miami and others. 

The two prospects became UF's second and third commitments in its 2015 class. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 21, 2014

Gators set Pro Day date

GAINESVILLE -- 

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Getcha stopwatches ready. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 20, 2014

The Curious Case of DFS

GAINESVILLE -- First things first...

FACT: No. 2 Florida would not have beaten then-No. 13 Kansas, No. 15 Memphis or a juiced Arkansas team without the contributions of Dorian Finney-Smith.

FICTION: Finney-Smith is the college reincarnate of Detroit's Josh Smith. 

He's more maddening. 

DFS has absolutely murdered UF's (otherwise) efficient field goal percentage during conference play.

His mind-numbing shooting slump extends from the 3-point line to the rim, as the redshirt sophomore is shooting a disastrous 35 percent (37-for-105) from the field in 13 conference games.

DFS is also an are-you-kidding-me 11-for-47 from downtown in SEC play. The underclassman has obviously never heard of the red light district. 

FACT: Finney-Smith was touted as a versatile, playmaking point-forward with freakish rebounding skills and a player some said to be the most dominant Gator in practices over the summer.

FICTION: DSF has a nasty shot-fake. 

What's it worth if you can't finish?

FACT OR FICTION: Florida can win the national title without improved play from its enigmatic forward?

TBD. 

Finney-Smith, UF's 6-foot-8 super sub, is a tantalizing talent.

He may well win the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year Award this season, but too often -- especially over the last month-plus -- DFS has teased solid performances with way too many eye-gouging nights. 

Ostensibly, Finney-Smith helps Florida space the floor and is an assertive offensive playmaker, but the redshirt sophomore hasn't made a trey in February (0-for-18) and is 0-for-21 since his last made 3-pointer.

Finney-Smith has also showcased as an inconsistent facilitator and finisher -- two of his most ballyhooed attributes at the start of 2013-14 -- currently touting the same number assists (46) as turnovers (46) this season. 

Following consecutive solid performances against Arkansas and Georgia (22 and 14 points, respectively), Finney-Smith has tallied just a single game in double-digits (11 points, Texas A&M) over UF's last 10 victories.  

Yet despite all the ups-and-downs: Finney-Smith stands as Florida's biggest X-factor heading into March Madness. 

WIth Chris Walker predictably still in the diaper stage of his career and Will Yeguete practically useless on the offensive end, the Gators need DFS to emerge -- on a nightly basis -- as the frontcourt force that dominated minutes in the wins over Kansas, Memphis and even Tennessee (at home). 

Earlier this season, Billy Donovan routinely ran iso-plays for Finney-Smith, now he's routinely yanking the forward for shody shot selection. 

On the surface, a stat line of 9.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game is superb for a role player, but DFS is more than that. He is a glorified starter (see: minutes played, closing out games) and an integral player in UF's motion offense and 1-3-1 defense.

I don't know if the Gators can win a title if Finney-Smith can't rediscover his offensive potential, and it's a question worth pondering with just five games until the madness begins.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 19, 2014

HOOPS: No. 2 Gators stave off upset bid, win 18th straight

 

GAINESVILLE -- For nearly 40 minutes, a heavyweight bout between David and Goliath broke out in the O'Connell Center. 

Fortunately for No. 2 Florida, Auburn -- 17-point underdogs entering Wednesday's showdown -- eventually ran out of stones. 

The Gators (24-2, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) won their 18th straight, as senior center Patric Young delivered a monster second half to stave off AU's upset bid en route to a 71-66 victory. 

Young sank a pair of clutch free throws with 19.4 seconds remaining, as Auburn Auburn'd down the stretch while the Gators rallied late facing (mounting) pressure. 

Young was (un)intentionally fouled by center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum after AU guard Chris Denson missed the possible go-ahead free throw. 

"I just told myself, 'Be great. Strive to be great right now,'" Young said. 

The Tigers (12-12, 4-9 SEC) threw away the ensuing impounds pass, capping a sudden imposition following a fearless effort most of the night. 

"We beat ourselves in those waning moments," AU coach Tony Barbee said. "But they didn't beat themselves, so give them credit."

Young, dealing with chronic knee pain, wasn't even expected to play Wednesday and his first half effort looked like he'd made the wrong choice to suit up. 

But the senior responded with a Herculean effort after halftime, scoring all 17 of his points in the second half, adding seven rebounds and three assists. 

"I thought Pat was just phenomenal," UF coach Billy Donovan said. 

But for most of the game, the Gators were anything but. 

Florida trailed by eight at halftime (38-30), its largest home deficit this season. Following two tough road battles last week, the Gators -- visibly mentally and physically fatigued -- played like they were running on fumes. 

"I thought Auburn outplayed us," Donovan said. "No question we're going to get everyone's best shot, but 'Are we going to give them our best shot?' I didn't think we did that today."

Florida struggled defensively, especially guarding the three-point line, as the Tigers drained 10 treys -- six in the first half. 

Freshman guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen tied a career-high, scoring 17 points with five 3-pointers.  

"We didn't play very well in the first half, but we never gave up," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. 

The Gators opened the second half on an 11-3 run but the game settled into a rowdy see-saw affair until Wilbekin (15 points, four assists), Prather (16 points, nine rebounds) and Young made the necessary plays late. 

Florida finished the win on an 8-1 run, holding the Tigers scoreless from the field over the final three minutes of the game.  

"We only got motivated because the game was in doubt," Donovan said. "I am very glad we won and I thought our guys showed resiliency."

THIS & THAT

Sophomore sniper-shooter Michael Frazier drilled a go-ahead triple with 41 seconds left in the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Frazier briefly exited the win with an apparent left hand injury, but Donovan said the sophomore is "fine." … The Gators shot 82 percent from the charity stripe (23-of-28), their best mark in conference play this season. … UF extended its school-record home winning streak to 30 games. … Dorian Finney-Smith was 0-for-4 from downtown. The redshirt sophomore has missed his last 21 attempts since Jan. 30. 

February 18, 2014

Afternoon Buffet: Tidbits on Gators hoops, football

GAINESVILLE -- A late afternoon nosh. Eat up. 

Florida climbed to No. 2 in both national polls Monday, receiving a single first place vote in the Associated Press Top 25. The Gators appear destined for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and are (almost) assured of playing in Orlando for the second/third rounds. 

Meanwhile, point guard Kasey Hill is doubtful for tomorrow's game against Auburn after injurying his groin in the win over Kentucky. 

Head coach Billy Donovan said Monday, "I would not anticipate him playing Wednesday." 

NEW FOOTBALL HIRE?

Jeremy Darveau, formerly the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Division II Southwest Minnesota State, tweeted Tuesday he has joined Florida's football staff. 

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FootballScoop.com first reported Darveau's move, but UF has yet to confirm the news. 

Will Muschamp's staff is full (all 10 spots filled), so Darveau's position is unknown. The former Louisville offensive tackle could be assigned quality control responsibilities or come on as a graduate assistant. 

Darveau played two seasons with the Cardinals under UF's new offensive line coach Mike Summers.

ANOTHER KICKER

Miami Belen Jesuit placekicker Jorge Powell will walk-on at Florida, according to the Miami Herald's own Safid Deen. 

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Powell was originally slated to attend Penn State, but will instead compete against Austin Hardin, UF's lone scholarship kicker who suffered through a dreadful redshirt freshman campaign, walk-on Frankie Velez (6-of-8 field goals) and former Virginia Tech kickoff specialist Brooks Abbott. 

According to The Gainesville Sun, Powell's father attended Florida and the placekicker wanted to play closer to home. 

JACKSON'S CAREER OVER?

On Feb. 4, The Moultrie Observer published a piece on Florida redshirt freshman Octavius Jackson and the offensive lineman's persistent, but failing battle with multiple shoulder injuries. 

Muschamp touted Jackson as one of UF's most promising linemen throughout the fall, but it appears the Colquitt County High standout will never play for the Gators following career-ending surgery. 

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Jackson also addressed the situation on Instagram. 

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BARNSTORMING TOUR

ESPN.com announced last week Florida agreed to participate in a unique "barnstorming event" in December 2018. 

The Gators, along with Michigan State, North Carolina and Texas, will play three games in eight days, one each in New York City (Madison Square Garden), Chicago (United Center) and Los Angeles (Staples Center). 

According to ESPN.com, the teams will all travel together on a single charted airplane. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, an innovator in creative college basketball events including the first aircraft carrier game, is the brainchild for the non-conference showcase tour.  

STAT OF THE DAY

Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin tallied 44 points (21 at Tennessee, 23 at UK), eight assists and zero turnovers in Florida two major road wins last week. Monday, UF's senior leader was named the SEC Player of the Week and one of 23 finalists for the Cousy Award, given to the nation's top college point guard. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 16, 2014

HOOPS: How to win at Rupp (and what it means)

  

GAINESVILLE -- From the wonderful wisdom of Ice-T: "Pimpin' ain't easy, but some somebody gotta do it."

No. 3 Florida won in Lexington for the first time since 2007, downing the talented Wildcats 69-59 for a significant victory. 

The Gators extended their winning streak to 17 games and for all intents and purposes (likely) locked up the Southeastern Conference regular season title. 

Comparisons (however faulty and careless) to the Oh-Fours are already trickling out, but the one definitive trait the two groups have/had in common: An obsession -- and joy -- in winning.   

Florida's victory at Tennessee on Tuesday night was nice and full of fortunate happenstances, but Patric Young's Herculean-save exemplified this team's horror of losing. 

Casey Prather's Superman snatch Saturday night was no different. 

@jaholtphoto(Courtesy @jaholtphoto)

Saturday's victory in Rupp Arena was an efficient, fastidious evisceration over perhaps "the most talented team in the country."

Although "youth versus experience" became the anti-narrative leading up to the marquee matchup, the game played out as initially presumed.  

UF freshman roadrunner Kasey Hill logged the fewest minutes of his collegiate career, as Donovan basically rotated six guys -- the four seniors plus sophomores Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith -- the majority of the game. 

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was fantastic, finishing with a career-high 23 points, zero turnovers and all the poise. The (potential) frontrunner for SEC POY was also 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the face of a hostile crowd -- only missing his final attempt. 

How did the Gators win in Rupp Arena shooting just 44 percent from the field -- including 3-for-13 from downtown -- and getting gashed (comparatively speaking) defensively in the first half?

Execution. Experience. Effort. 

* Florida scored an insane 2.21 points per possession over the final 10+ minutes of the game. UF's efficient offense -- led by Wilbekin's weaving penetration -- ultimately won the game for the Gators. 

* The Gators shot a season-high (in conference play) 78.6 percent from the free throw line (22-of-28), drilling 15 of their last 17 attempts. 

* Florida outscored UK 22-11 following John Calipari's (rather mysterious) technical foul. 

* The Gators had just five turnovers -- two from a pair of role players who combined for less than 20 minutes of action. 

* For the all the talk of UK's dominance on the offensive glass, the Gators actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 10-9 -- the dagger Prather's board with 1:25 remaining in a five-point game. 

Florida's 17th straight win Saturday night didn't change the team's ceiling or alter any attitudes for those intimately aware of UF's consistent crunch-time coolness this season.

Instead, "Wrangled at Rupp" simply confirmed what many already knew: Florida is a damn fine team -- and seemingly getting better -- with a legitimate shot at bringing Billy Donovan his third national title. 

The Gators -- dangerous and hungry -- have played like a championship-caliber team for nearly two months, and although their primetime win at No. 14 Kentucky suddenly vaulted them into the title discourse for the national press, they should've been the talk of college hoops already. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 14, 2014

HOOPS: No. 3 Gators, No. 14 Wildcats tangle in SEC Saturday showcase

 

GAINESVILLE -- In advance of Saturday’s marquee matchup, No. 3 Florida coach Billy Donovan called No. 14 Kentucky “top to bottom the most talented team in the country.”

The Gators -- the lone undefeated team in Southeastern Conference play -- take on the Wildcats in Rupp Arena tomorrow night in primetime (9 p.m., ESPN College GameDay).

Kentucky starts five of the top nine freshmen in ESPN’s 2013 prospect rankings, led by double-double machine Julius Randle (15.8 ppg, 9.9 rebs) and the Harrison twins (Aaron, Andrew).

Florida’s coach downplayed the youth versus experience (UF starts four seniors) angle though, saying, “Those guys have played a lot of basketball against a lot of good players. Right now, everybody’s got about 24-25 games under their belt. Those guys certainly, all their guys have logged an enormous amount of minutes. They’ve grown, too. I don’t look at it like that. Maybe it’s different at the first game of the year. Right now at this point in time, you’ve got a very experienced team in terms of roles, responsibilities and what they’re going through.”

The Gators have dropped eight of 10 against John Calipari’s McDonald’s All-American factory Wildcats and haven’t won in (rowdy) Rupp Arena since 2007.

UF senior center Patric Young admitted, “We let one slip out of our hands last year (61-57). It would be really special to finally get one and not go my whole career not winning there.”

While expounding on Kentucky's talent, Donovan also acknowledged he is wary of UK’s size and rebounding prowess, calling it the “ultimate test” and “extremely important in the outcome in the game.”

“It’s an impressive stat. They get it back a little bit more than 41% of their missed shots,” Donovan said. “They do a great job on the glass. … Kentucky’s depth in terms of two guys on the bench with the same level of length and size and physical strength, it makes them a good rebounding team.”

Florida, in the midst of a 16-game winning streak and just one victory shy of matching a school record, hopes its staunch defense (No. 1 scoring defense) can contain Kentucky’s explosive offense (No. 2 in scoring). A win (very likely) wraps up the SEC regular-season title for the Gators and keeps them in line for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 12, 2014

HOOPS: Extra Effort

GAINESVILLE -- This is a senior who really wants to win a championship.

Patric_Young_Rebound_1_6(Courtesy sbnation.com)

 

In Billy Donovan's postgame radio interview, No. 3 Florida's coach called Patric Young's spectacular-save "the play of the year." 

After the game, Young tweeted:

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The Gators -- united, experienced and hungry -- have won 16 straight and take on No. 14 Kentucky in primetime Saturday (9 p.m., ESPN) in Rupp Arena.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

HOOPS: Are freebies Florida's lone Achilles heel?

GAINESVILLE -- No. 3 Florida upended Tennessee 67-58 Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena. 

Despite another hard-fought battle in Knoxville, the Gators (22-2, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) won their 16th straight game thanks to effort, equanimity and a continued pursuit of excellence. 

The Volunteers (15-9, 6-5 SEC) were red-hot from the field in the first half, but the Gators managed to weather UT's shooting storm and play spoiler as Tennessee teased a national audience once again. 

While Florida tightened up its interior defense in the second half and made critical plays (Michael Frazier, Scottie Wilbekin treys; Patric Young hustle rebound) when necessary, a (potentially) overlooked factor in Tuesday's victory was the improvement in UF's normally-middling free throw shooting. 

The Gators shot 77 percent (17-22) from the charity stripe, easily its top mark in conference play all year. 

For Florida fans, the hope is that its free throw percentage -- 66 percent for the season -- continues to improve. If not, it could doom UF's chances to win a national title. 

I've purposely buried the lede here, but the last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship: The 2006-07 Florida Gators. 

Take a peak of the last decade, and only two teams have shot under 70 percent and won a title.   

YEAR

NATIONAL CHAMP

FREE THROW %

2013

Louisville

71 percent

2012

Kentucky

72 percent

2011

Connecticut

76 percent

2010

Duke

76 percent

2009

North Carolina

75 percent

2008

Kansas

70 percent

2007

Florida

69 percent

2006

Florida

74 percent

2005

North Carolina

73 percent

2004

Connecticut

62 percent

The 2013-14 Gators dominate both traditional (field-goal percentage, scoring, etc.) and advanced (see: kenpom.com) analytics -- with the notable exception of team free throwing shooting. 

Coach Billy Donovan is certainly aware of the issue, as Florida ranks No. 292 nationally.  

The Gators are on a roll and appear to be the nation's most complete (and underrated) team. They're experienced, talented, deep, measured and hungry, but even a lone scarlet weakness could torpedo the entire season come March.   

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 11, 2014

HOOPS: "It's going to be a different game."

GAINESVILLE -- Two weeks ago, No. 3 Florida smothered Tennessee 67-41, as the Gators defended possessed and frustrated UT's top scorer Jordan McRae all afternoon. 

The Volunteers were a frightening 1-of-19 from downtown and held 34 points below their season average. 

Florida has been dominant defensively this season, especially inside the comfortable confines of the O'Connell Center, but Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena has been a house of horrors for the Gators for nearly a decade. 

UF has dropped seven of eight in Knoxville, last winning 81-75 in 2011. 

"It's going to be a different game. I can feel it," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "We know McRae's not going to come in and go 1-for-15 in their place."

The Vols have won four straight at home, averaging nearly 80 points per game with seven made 3-pointers. 

"If you look at their numbers at home from the three-point line, they’re pretty incredible," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They’re not going to shoot that kind of percentage like they did (here). They are a very, very dangerous three-point shooting team and if you look at their home stats, when they’re at home, they are shooting a very high percentage from the three.”

Starting with tonight (7 p.m., ESPN), Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC) plays four of its next five games on the road, all against the SEC's upper echelon. 

Can the Gators extend their 15-game winning streak? Which team is more likely to snap Florida's undefeated record in conference play: Tennessee or No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday?

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 08, 2014

HOOPS: Gators roll past Tide despite lackluster defensive effort

GAINESVILLE -- The Master continues to dominate his Protégé.

Billy Donovan moved to 8-0 all-time against good friend and former lead assistant Anthony Grant, as No. 3 Florida stayed perfect in Southeastern Conference play with a 78-69 win over Alabama on Saturday afternoon.

Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 16 points, leading all five UF starters in double figures. Sophomore swingman Michael Frazier added 14 points, while seniors Will Yeguete (12), Casey Prather (15) and Patric Young (11) all chipped in double-figures too.  

Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC) shredded Alabama's (9-14, 3-7 SEC) zone defense, finishing with a season-high 22 assists and 48 points in the paint.

Despite a lackluster defensive performance, the Gators topped the Crimson Tide for the second time in 16 days, extending two winning streaks (15th straight overall, 29th consecutive victory at home) in the process.

The Gators, who entered the contest holding their last seven opponents to 35.6 percent shooting and 51.3 points per game, sprinted to an 8-0 lead before the Crimson Tide ever crossed half-court. They hit their first seven shots and the rout appeared on.

Not so.

Alabama managed to weather the early storm and actually jumped to a 20-18 lead after its own 16-4 run. Fueled by a trapping zone defense and senior guard Trevor Releford's ridiculous shot-making, the Tide frustrated the Gators into a seven minute scoreless stretch.

"We got off to a really good start," Donovan said. "But then we just turned the ball over and made some really poor decisions in open-floor situations."

Alabama was red-hot from the field in the first half, shooting 61 percent with 14 made baskets.

“Our defense was bad the whole game,” Donovan said. “It’s an everyday grind to be really, really good and we were not where we were supposed to be. Thank God we had some offense that helped us today.”

Florida eventually solved Grant's pressure-zone, scoring on nine of its final 10 possessions in the first half. 

With the score knotted at 36-all, the Gators opened the second half on a 14-5 run, spending the rest of the afternoon fouling and slowly watering its lead.

Releford finished with a game-high 25 points, but the Tide eventually ran out of gas, as the Gators' tempo was too much. 

Despite the win, Donovan was displeased with UF's trademark suffocating defense struggling against a below-average offense. Alabama shot 55 percent from the field, hitting six treys. Florida forced 16 turnovers, but kept UA in the game with lots of free throws and too many wide open looks. 

"We just fouled way too much," Donovan said. "We're about to play some games where if you play defense like we did tonight, you're not going to win."

Florida's 15-point second-half lead was enough to overcome its sloppy play, as Alabama never trailed by less than seven following UF's run out of halftime. The Gators' 21-2 start is the second-best in school history, but Donovan was more concerned with the future.

"That's just a record of what has happened in the past," he said. "I'm not overly joyous we're 10-0 in the SEC. We've played most of our games against the bottom-half of our league."

The Gators hit the road for four of their next five games, starting with Tennessee on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN).

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 07, 2014

Getting Offensive: On the future of UF's tight end position

GAINESVILLE -- Florida coach Will Muschamp delivered multiple zingers during his 30-minute press conference Wednesday, but none was more direct than his shot at Florida's putrid tight end production in 2013.

"It was a very offensive position when Jordan Reed was here," Muschamp quipped. "It was an offensive position last year."

Florida's tight ends -- Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Clay Thompson (briefly) -- combined for just four receptions last season, as Muschamp publicly challenged the group throughout the year.

The Gators wasted little time addressing the position this offseason, signing three tight ends in their 2014 recruiting class, headlined by converted-receiver and four-star Taylor County standout Moral Stephens.

Three-stars C'yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby also signed with Florida, with both prospects targeted early in the process. While Lewis and Gooslby project as developmental players, all three freshmen are expected to compete for immediate playing time come fall.

“I felt like we needed to athletically improve ourselves at tight end.  And I think we took some steps there,” Muschamp said. “Those guys need to step forward, probably have some young guys help us out there to be able to take the next step.”

During Kurt Roper's introductory press conference last month, Florida's new offensive coordinator never mentioned how he prefers (or plans) to use tight ends in his spread offense, but the stats suggest he schemes for tight ends to be involved … quite a bit.

In 2013, Braxton Deaver, Duke's junior tight end, was the team's second-leading receiver.

Deaver posted nearly identical numbers -- 46 receptions, 600 yards, four touchdowns -- to Jordan Reed’s heralded 2012 campaign (45 catches, 559 yards three touchdowns). 

The Blue Devils' second- and-third string tight ends actually caught more balls (five) than Florida's entire group last season.

In 2012, Duke's top two tight ends combined for 50 receptions and four touchdowns.

It remains to be seen how Florida will integrate three raw freshmen with a group of underachieving upperclassmen, but Muschamp is fond of the phrase “competition is the best motivator” and appears geninuly excited about infusing the position with fresh talent.

“Cyontai is a guy that we targeted.  Brian White was actually watching another player practice last spring and just kept noticing this guy's athleticism.  We challenged him to come to camp.  He came to camp and had an outstanding camp, and a guy that showed all the athleticism and ball skills to be really, really good. … DeAndre Goolsby is another guy we targeted early on. [Position coach] Derrick Lewis went out and evaluated him in the last spring evaluation, really liked his movement skills, his growth potential, his toughness, his point of attack and those things, and excited to have him on campus and a guy that can do some different things for you.  And then Moral Stephens is a guy that we didn't think we were going to have room for.  He came to camp.  He did an outstanding job in camp.  We really liked him, and then when we had some attrition, it opened up a spot for him, and we're really happy to have him.”

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 06, 2014

NSD Recap: Gators finish with consensus top 10 class

GAINESVILLE -- Florida's final class rankings -- via all four major recruiting services:

Rivals - No. 7

ESPN - No. 6

Scout - No. 9 

247Sports - No. 9

Yes, Florida was the laughingstock of college football in 2013, and considering that, the Gators did quite well on National Signing Day.

Having said that, it could've been even better and yesterday again proved it's really, really hard for Florida to NOT be among the nation's top-ranked classes. 

At UF, the priority should be coaching >> recruiting considering how the program naturally sells itself. 

Anyways, a brunch buffet of hot links… 

* Rebuilding plan underway for Gators with infused talent

* UM, UF & FSU all boast strong classes 

* No Sunshine State Triple Crown for J.C. Jackson

* Treon Harris flips to UF

* South Dade's C.J. Worton signs with Gators

Later, I'll have a brief breakdown on each of Florida's 24 signees, accompanied by comments from head coach Will Muschamp. 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton

February 05, 2014

No Sunshine State Triple Crown: Jackson signs with Gators

GAINESVILLE -- The roller-coaster recruitment of Immokalee cornerback J.C. Jackson ended Wednesday morning when the four-star defensive back held firm in his commitment to Florida, rebuffing strong advances by in-state rivals Miami and Florida State.

Following weeks of speculation of a possible third flip, Jackson, once an FSU commit, was actually one of UF's first signees to officially fax in his National Letter of Intent.

The Under Armour All-American is purportedly close friends with former UF pledges Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane, leading many to believe he too would decommit from the Gators.

Wednesday afternoon, Florida coach Will Muschamp discussed Jackson's recruiting saga and much of the "misinformation" on the Internet.

“It’s amazing, I don't really follow the Internet much, but there's so much hearsay and as much information there is out there, in my opinion, there's a lot of misinformation,” Muschamp said.

“I get tons of phone calls about, ‘Well, I heard this, I heard that.’  I mean I can't keep up with all the what‑I‑heard stuff.  I have to go off fact, and I go off talking to Lisa, his mother, and Chris, his father, and J. C. I deal with the family and I talk to them.  And certainly I don't think our season helped, but I think that he saw his best opportunity to come in and play corner at Florida.  You know, seeing Marcus [Roberson] and Loucheiz [Purifoy] and Jaylen [Watkins], our three top corners leaving and moving on that were upper classmen, seeing his opportunity here to play here at Florida, it was something he was excited about.

“I know he looked at some other places, no different than a lot of kids do, and I encourage kids to do, to go make sure they're making the right decision, to go take a look at another place.  And so, you know, again, I never ‑‑ we never felt it was that much in the balance, maybe as what a lot of people seemed to think.  We never felt that way.  And you never know till you get the facts in.  Any coach that tells you they know what was going to happen, they can't say that.”

Jackson, at 5-foot-10, 175-pounds, projects as an immediate contributor in Florida's depleted secondary and/or as a play-making returner.  

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReSimonton


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