Florida Basketball: Keys to Regaining Momentum After a Tough SEC Loss
The Florida Gators' freight train express through its SEC basketball schedule didn't just hit a bump, but literally ran off the tracks in an embarrassing and humbling loss to unranked Arkansas, 80-69 in Fayetteville.
The Gators, who were riding an eight game winning streak in conference play, ran into another streaking team in the hot-shooting Razorbacks, who improved to 14-1 at home under second-year coach Mike Anderson.
For the No.2 Gators, it was their first SEC loss in 2013 and temporarily derailed any thoughts of a No.1 ranking.
But, all is not lost for the Gators, who still have plenty of basketball left and plenty of talent as they head into the most challenging part of their schedule.
The SEC regular season is only half over and the Gators still have two games with Kentucky, a road game against Missouri and a home rematch with Arkansas among its remaining conference games.
The road to an SEC Championship and Final Four appearance is not out of the question, but the Gators will need to regain their mojo.
Here are some keys to do just that.
Gators Win with Defense
This Gator team will live or die by their defense.
Prior to the Arkansas shellacking, the Gators' ranked second nationally in scoring defense, giving up a stingy average of 51 points per game.
Against Arkansas, the Gators got behind early, as the Razorbacks opened the game going 15-20 from the field. While the Razorbacks seemed to hit everything in sight, Florida coach Billy Donovan said the Gators did a poor job of guarding the three-point line by not using enough hand pressure to alter shots.
The Gators have been winning with balance, but don't have enough firepower to overcome a large deficit or compete toe-to-toe in a shootout. While four of the five starters are averaging double figures, the Gators lack a prolific scorer they can depend on game after game.
The key to the defense remains the play of guard Scottie Wilbekin. Against Arkansas, Wilbekin, who has improved offensively, took way too many shots, going 5-for-15 from the floor.
Donovan is known for his emphasis on team defense. This year's squad seems to have bought in, but will need to ramp up the defensive pressure for the second half of the season and postseason play.
Get to the Line and Make the Free-Throws
The Gators currently rank last in the conference in free-throw attempts (342).
With a physically tough schedule ahead, the Gators need to get to the charity stripe more often.
And, when they do, they need to make the shots.
The Gators are getting solid free-throw production from guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario and from forward Erik Murphy, but center Patric Young is struggling with 50 percent shooting from the line, so is forward Will Yeguete at just over 57 percent. The Gators could benefit from some improvement by Scottie Wilbekin (.667). With these percentages, the Gators are leaving valuable points on the floor.
With the stretch run ahead, the Gators need the foul line to be their ally, both in terms of free-throw attempts and shots made.
Gators Must Overcome Loss of Will Yeguete
The loss of forward Will Yeguete for the rest of the regular season is perhaps the biggest challenge for Florida Coach Billy Donovan.
Statistically, Yeguete may not have been at the top of the heap, but he plays long and large. He is a key to the Gators' defense and his absence, as evidenced in the Arkansas game, creates a depth problem for Florida.
Forward Casey Prather has returned to the lineup after recovering from a high ankle sprain, but has had little impact and has not regained his pre-injury form.
Without Yeguete, the Gators become a "small" team, with fewer options off the bench. Freshman guard Michael Frazier II, who has shown great promise, will likely see more playing time.
This is the second year in a row the Gators have lost the hard-luck Yeguete to a mid-season injury. Last year, Yeguete missed the final nine games of the regular season with a broken foot.
Play Through the Ups and Downs of a Long Season
The Gators realize they are no longer invincible.
The first half of the SEC schedule was too easy for the Gators, who overwhelmed their opponents and were never tested. The loss at Arkansas should eliminate any thoughts of "just showing up" and winning in a conference that is having a down year.
The toughest part of the Gators' schedule lies ahead. There will be more adversity and more challenges, especially with the loss of forward Will Yeguete.
It is a long season, as evidenced this past week when all four top-ranked teams lost (Indiana, Michigan, Kansas and Florida).
Despite the loss at Arkansas, the Gators have everything ahead of them including the inside track on a conference championship and a realistic run at the Final Four. They have the talent, maturity and coaching to take them all the way. It will require all of the above and more, but the Gators are still looking good heading into the second half of the season.