Tough Non-Conference Readies Gators for SEC

Florida completed its pre-conference schedule Monday night with a victory over Rhode Island, heading into SEC play with an 11-3 record. With the ups and downs that have happened early this season, escaping with only one bad loss isn't the worst it could have gone.

The Gators returned all five starters from last season, but for most of the season, the offense has taken multiple steps back. The perimeter players have struggled with their shots, which is the main reason Florida is the 224th best three-point shooting team in the country at 32.2%.

Even though Erving Walker is shooting an impressive 45.1% (32-71) for three, his backcourt-mate has struggled. Kenny Boynton is shooting only 27.6% (24-87) for three. Chandler Parsons has also struggled with his three-point shot, shooting 31.3% from behind the three-point line.

From the field, the Gators are a different team. Florida has the 60th best shooting percentage at 46.5%, thanks in large part to center Vernon Macklin's team-high 57.3% from the field.

The offense looks like it could be coming around at the right time. The Gators broke the 70-point barrier for the seventh time this season last Friday at Xavier, and the 84 points in Monday's win over Rhode Island were the second most points Florida has scored all season.

The early offensive struggles also could have been a product of a tough schedule. The Gators played Ohio State and UCF, who both rank in the top ten teams in scoring defense. Both of those games ended in losses.

UCF also ranks fourth in field goal percentage defense, but Florida State is the top team in the country in that statistic. They hold opponents to 34% shooting, but the Gators shot 38.1%.

The perimeter shooting issues could also have something to do with the defenses Florida has played. The Gators have taken on four of the top 50 best teams in the country at defending the three-pointer. Florida State, Jacksonville, Rhode Island and UCF are all in that category.

There is no doubting the offense is starting to turn it on now, and the Gators can feel it.

"We had a big change from the beginning to the start," freshman center Patric Young said. "It was a little more one-on-one, but everyone is really into the team right now. Everyone is ready to learn and listening to the coaches. It's paying off big time for the team."

Despite the offensive struggles early on, the Gators head into conference play with the No. 13 RPI in the country after playing the No. 8 strength of schedule.

They were able to maintain the high marks thanks to a lockdown defensive effort. Florida ranks second in the country with only 14 personal fouls per game.

However, the strong defense could be somewhat inflated because of down offenses. Florida has played only two of the top scoring offenses in college basketball, Ohio State and UCF. The Buckeyes average 82.8 points a game, and they scored 93 points in Gainesville. However, UCF is 45th in the country, averaging 77.1 points, and the Gators held them to 57 in a Knights victory.

"I think our defense has really improved," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "I think we're one of the better defensive teams in the country, and we've been priding ourselves on that all year long. We've played a really difficult schedule, and we've gotten better from the start of the season."

Florida has also experienced success in rebounding. The Gators are 22nd in the country in rebounding margin at +7.7, but they have played four teams this season who have a better rebounding margin. Kansas State is 6th in the country at +10.1, Morehead State is 13th at +9.4, Ohio State is 15th at +8.5 and Florida State is 17th at +8.3.

In the four games against those opponents, the Gators were only rebounded once, and it came in a 61-55 victory over Morehead State.

The loss to Jacksonville is the only bad loss Florida has experienced this season, but their point guard doesn't view it as that.

"We've been up and down, but we have a few big wins," junior point guard Erving Walker said. "I wouldn't call it a bad loss to UCF. It was a bad loss to Jacksonville, but in a way, I consider it a good loss as long as you learn from it. We did learn from it and we're getting better."

And it's all happening at the right time.

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