First-year coach Mike White will face something Billy Donovan never did in his 19 years at Florida. Under Donovan, the Gators never faced back-to-back non-conference road games against ranked teams. It took just nine games in White’s tenure in Gainesville for that to happen.
Florida (6-2) fell 66-55 at No. 17 Miami on Tuesday, but that was supposed to be the easy game this week. The Gators now travel to the Breslin Center to face No. 1 Michigan State (10-0) on Saturday at 6 p.m. (TV: ESPN2).
Only two of the Spartan’s 10 wins have been by single digits, a six-point win over Kansas and a four-point win over Louisville. An experienced lineup with three seniors has helped Michigan State get off to the best start of any team in the country, and White doesn’t think it’s a fluke.
“You wish you had a month to prepare for them. They’re that good,” White said. “They’re good at everything. Michigan State doesn’t have a weakness. They’re as solid a team as there is in college basketball, as a disciplined, as tough as there is in the country right now. It’s a great opportunity for us. We’d better be really good at the basics just to have a chance.
“We better be good and better at some things we weren’t good at the other night at Miami, in terms of basic defensive principles, just to give ourselves a chance to where if we have a pretty good offensive night maybe we have a chance to win.”
As if the Michigan State crowd needed any extra reason for excitement, the Spartans will also honor their 2000 national championship team, which beat Florida in the national title game. The Gators saw a difficult environment on Tuesday in front of a sold out crowd at Miami, but it wasn’t close to what they’ll see at the Breslin Center Saturday night.
“It's a great opportunity,” Florida senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “You always dream about beating the No. 1 team. I think it's going to be a great game, great atmosphere and our guys in the locker room are going to be jacked up. We've got to have that us versus the world mentality because that's what it's going to feel like with all the fans screaming at us. That's how important communication is going to be on the court because you're probably not going to be able to hear yourself think. They're going to make runs. We've just got to stay the course."
Florida’s preparation starts with Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine, a National Player of the Year candidate after his strong start to the season. The senior comes into Saturday averaging 18.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists. He’s a triple-double threat every time the Spartans take the floor, and the Gators will have to know where he’s at on the floor at all times.
“It starts with Valentine, who’s arguably one of the best -- if not the best -- players in the country,” White said. “He’s so good in so many different ways. He’s good at everything.”
Florida is having enough problems of its own while heading to East Lansing, Mich. Shots aren’t falling, and for an offense without many pure shooters to begin with, scoring has become extremely difficult.
The offense gets plenty of focus in practice, but both White and the players know that shots will start falling soon and things should improve. One of the coach’s biggest disappointment from the Miami game was defensive effort.
“It’s simpler for us to focus on the things that we can control like being really good defensively because we’ve shown signs of being a tremendous defensive team,” White said. “It was a C, D effort against a really good Miami team defensively, not to take anything away from them, they’re really good offensively of course, just like Michigan State is. Whether we go up there and we’re able to score 75 against a really good defensive team or we score 50, defensively I’d like to be a lot better in some areas than we were the other night because we’re capable. I know we’re capable of that.”