Defense does it again

Billy Donovan noticed it early in practice. His team would be able to play elite defense is they committed to it and bought into his vision for the group. It didn't take long for that to happen. The Gators moved to 4-0 this season on Tuesday night with a 58-40 win over Savannah State as the defense did it again. The strength of the Florida team hasn't taken long to hit its stride.

Tuesday's game film won't be shown to recruits as a highlight of what the Florida offense can produce. Shots weren't falling from the start, whether behind the three-point line or even in the paint. It was a sloppy game for both offenses. For a program that has always put up big offensive numbers under Billy Donovan, this team doesn't mind winning ugly.

They even enjoy it.

As they shot 35.4% from the field for the game, the Gators were forced to lean on their defense. As it did in the first three games of the season, the group played well and secured a comfortable win.

"Offensively, we were not great tonight," Billy Donovan said. "If we did not defend like we defended the entire game, we would've been in a dogfight until the end. It was our offense that put a lot of pressure on our defense.

"Our defense saved us. We were not good at all on offense. It's a good game for our guys to continue to learn from."

The defensive statistics are impressive early this season. The Gators came into Tuesday third in the country in scoring defense (45.3) and field goal percentage defense (29.7%). The scoring defense will continue to drop after the 40 points allowed by Florida on Tuesday.

The Florida defense came close to breaking the school record for fewest points allowed in a half. It was set just over a week ago when the Gators held Alabama State to nine points in the first half on November 11. The Gators had a chance to do it again, as Savannah State had four points until there were under three minutes remaining in the first half. Florida has held opponents under 30 points during eight of the nine halves of basketball played this year.

The most dominant defensive performances haven't come against the world-beaters of college basketball, but it's sign of a mentality that this team has. They don't have to score 90 points and hit 15 three-pointers to win. They're just as happy locking an opponent down from the field and grinding out a win.

The offseason helped build that increased focus on defense. Donovan showed the players film and statistics to prove how far they had to come. They were last in the Southeastern Conference in defending the three-point line last season and weren't effective on defense.

Donovan and the Florida staff broke down, statistically and on film, the shortcomings when defending the fast break, in the post and behind the three-point line. They focused on whom opponents scored against the most and what the breakdowns were. It was all focused on improving the defensive effectiveness with so much returning talent.

"We have all the tools that you need on defense," said Patric Young, whose six blocks and 11 rebounds contributed to the defensive dominance. "We have good coaches and guys that are willing to listen to the coaches. We're willing to apply things to the game and executing. The results have showed.

"Everyone is more bought in. We can all see how good we can actually be. Knowing how good we can be on the defensive side, even if we're having a bad shooting night, we can still win this year."

The Florida defense forced 20 turnovers after averaging 14.7 turnovers forced per game this year. It's how this team is going to play, and they'll continue to do it as the depth grows. The return of Scottie Wilbekin (undisclosed suspension) on Sunday was the first step in that. The addition of Casey Prather (concussion) on Friday against UCF will give the Gators a full slate of the 11 eligible scholarship players.

Tuesday wasn't the prettiest game. There are enough offensive weapons for the Gators to score and keep up with strong offensive teams, but they have enough defensive talent to win the sloppy games.

Donovan knew it was coming. He didn't know it would come this soon.


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