The semi-successful strategy of last year has been replaced by a new toughness and a new willingness to play harder and smarter on the defensive end of the floor. While Coach Billy Donovan's team isn't exactly revving up memories of the 2000 press till they puke approach that got the Gators all the way to the NCAA championship game, Florida is playing the best and most consistent brand of defense since that run to the title game. The Gators are a very respectable sixth in scoring defense in the SEC, allowing opponents only 64.6 points a game. Florida's opponent for Wednesday night's SEC game in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Ole Miss, ranks next to last in scoring offense in the league at 65.4.
In the three games prior to Saturday's win over Tennessee in Knoxville, the Gators showed a tough brand of man to man defense. In losses on the road at Mississippi State and Kentucky, it wasn't the defense that let the Gators down. On the contrary, it was the offense that didn't make the critical plays. Against Alabama, the Gators put it together on both ends of the floor, playing as efficiently on both offense and defense as they have in any game all season as they routed the Crimson Tide, 85-54.
Saturday against Tennessee, the Gators played the first 30 minutes of the game like the Gators of 2003-2004. This was an old fashioned shootout until the final ten minutes of the game when the Gators suddenly put together a run of defensive stops and combined that with quality possessions that resulted in points either from the field or from the foul line. Also, down the stretch Florida completely took over the backboards, outrebounding the Vols 13-8 down the stretch and 36-27 for the game.
"For the last several years, we've always been pretty good offensively," said Donovan at his weekly media luncheon Monday. "Our problem in years past is we didn't have the athleticism to play defense like I'd like to see us play. The last several weeks, we've gotten better defending and rebounding. Our guys understand that when they defend and rebound, they give themselves a chance to win."
It was in those final ten minutes Saturday when the Gators played superior defense to go with the effort on the boards that Florida showed the kind of mental toughness that may have been lacking with last year's team.
"Last year we knew that if we didn't shoot 60 percent it was going to be pretty tough for us to win the game," senior power forward David Lee said last week, a couple of days before the matchup in Knoxville with Tennessee.
The Gators didn't shoot 60 percent Saturday against Tennessee, but they didn't have to the way they turned up the defensive heat down the stretch. One play in particular epitomized the Gators effort on the defensive end to Donovan.
"We were up by four or six points when Adrian (Moss) turned the ball over and (then) got a stop," said Donovan. "We came down and the play Corey Brewer made was incredible. He went up and kept the ball alive, it was loose in the lane, he threw it to (Anthony) Roberson with a minute or two left in the game, and why he shot it, I don't know. But it went up.
"Corey Brewer was out of bounds and ran in to the front of the rim and jumped up, and kept the ball alive again on the glass, which enabled David (Lee) to rebound it and throw it back out so we could run clock. We made a lot of plays like that. Those are the plays you have to make."
Making the defensive stops and getting the rebounds has become a regular part of winning efforts for Florida, particularly in the Southeastern Conference games. Against Tennessee, the Gators played a little bit of zone, but mostly straight man to man. Florida rarely pressed, even late in the game when they were busy putting the Vols away.
"At Tennessee it was not a good time for us to press and so we didn't press but we may bring out the press against Ole Miss depending on how coach sees their guard play," said Lee.
Equally important was the way the Gators closed out the game offensively down the stretch. Good defensive stops were rewarded by good possessions.
"We did a really good job of finishing the game I think we really came together as a team," said junior guard Matt Walsh, who led the Gators against Tennessee with 23 points. "We got good stops and rebounds and down at the other end we got good shots."
Lee felt that the way the Gators played down the stretch against Tennessee is indicative of the direction the team is heading as the Gators close out the regular season with six SEC games, three at home and three on the road.
"I think what we did at Tennessee to close out the game, getting stops executing on offense, coming together and huddling up as a team and reminding ourselves to keep that swagger and keep that confidence is exactly what was missing in the Kentucky game," said Lee, whose 21-point, 12-rebound effort was his most impressive game of the season. "That's the way we have to play."
While Ole Miss comes into the game at 12-12, looking more like a team in disarray than one with aspirations for any kind of postseason play, Donovan says the Gators will have to be ready.
"We've got a game on Wednesday against a team that, traditionally, is a really aggressive defensive team that is very disruptive," said Donovan. "They've got a lot of quickness and some different faces than a year ago, but their speed and athleticism and the way they defend creates a lot of opportunities for them on the offensive end of the floor. Offensively, they've got the quickness to beat you of the dribble and a three-point shooting ability. It's another typical SEC game. The last two for us have been on the road, and this one is at home."
The Gators take a 15-6 overall record and 7-3 SEC mark into the game. In the all important RPI that the NCAA uses to help determine which teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament, the Gators are ranked number 35 which puts them solidly in the hunt for a tournament bid.