HOOPS: Unbelievable Start For Young Gators

Coming into the season I figured the Florida Basketball team would win two home games and advance to New York in the Coach Vs. Cancer tournament. Then the youngsters would get swept up in the emotion of the trip and the aura of the Big Apple and come home 2-and-2. And that would have been a good start for Billy Donovan and company.

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But I forgot to explain the details of my plan to the Gator Coach and his players. Florida showed poise beyond its collective years and scoring ability nobody was expecting in posting five-point wins over both Wake Forest and Syracuse to win the championship. While there is an incredibly long way to go and the Gators cannot count on its starting guard shooting over 50 percent from three-point range all season, this team has already raised the bar of expectations.

A Borderline Tournament Team No More

The consensus coming in to this year was that Florida would need to be an 8-and-8 SEC team to be in the NCAA for the eighth straight year, and that was no sure thing. Well, many Florida teams have earned NCAA bids without a pair of wins over ranked teams away from home. This team has that covered already. The remaining non-conference schedule includes seven "gimmees" and three challenging games (FSU, @ Providence, @ Miami). If Florida can take two of those three; you're looking at a 13-and-1 non-conference mark.

As for the SEC, well Alabama lost to Memphis but I'm not sure how much can be read into that. I do believe Florida will win at least six of its eight homes games and perhaps all of them. Even at 6-and-2, they would need just one road win for a 20-win season. Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vandy and Ole Miss are all certainly winnable.

Finding Points Not A Problem

After losing David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson the biggest question about this team was replacing the points. Where would the Gators get the 46 a game that trio delivered? Well after four games, Florida is averaging 78.8 points a game, which is 2.6 more than last year. All five starters are averaging in double figures, led by Taurean Green's 15.3. Chris Richard is almost there, with 9.5 per game off the bench. The Gators are an extremely unselfish team, averaging almost 19 assist per game – four more than a year ago. Florida is also taking good care of the ball with 14.5 turnovers a game, just about four a game fewer than their opponents are giving up.

Several Areas For Improvement

Keep in mind a 4-and-0 start is simply that – a start. Albeit a great one. But the Gators have shown enough flaws to give Billy Donovan plenty to keep his guys from getting too cocky over the tournament title.

  • Free Throw Shooting --- This has been Florida's worst early-season area. Florida is making just 57 percent of its freebies. That's awful. Every game has seen several "1-and-1" opportunities go by without a single point being scored. How Lee Humphrey can shoot 53 percent from long range and yet miss four of five free throws is anyone's guess. No Gator is better than 67 percent. That has to change.
  • Rebounding --- The Gators are breaking even on the boards, which is unacceptable for a team with so much talent and size up front. Florida's opponents are averaging 13 offensive rebounds a game, which is three or four more than is normally okay. The Gators are getting just ten such opportunities themselves, but that's really not bad seeing how Florida is shooting so well from the field. The Gators have missed 100 shots and have 40 offensive rebounds. That's 40 percent, and that's good.
  • Freshmen Struggles --- To this point Florida has been getting good play out of the starters, plus Richard and Adrian Moss off the bench. In fact, I think Moss was the key to the win over Wake Forest with his play inside while the other big guys were in foul trouble. But the Gators have to get more from their freshmen, particularly Walter Hodge. The lefty is playing about 16 minutes a game, and that number needs to go up to 20 or so. But he's 1-for-15 from the field, and that's not helping. David Huertas has shot the ball okay, but has had difficulties in other areas. The numbers are clear for the two rookies… eleven points, ten fouls, eight turnovers. That must improve.

Seminoles Up Next

With four wins in the bank, Florida is off until Friday night when a packed O'Dome will see the Gators host Florida State. Leonard Hamilton's squad returns Alexander Johnson and Al Thornton in the front court and Jason Rich and Todd Galloway at guards. FSU was 12-and-19 last year, but did knock off both Florida and Wake Forest.

The Florida State game was the low point for the Gators last year. Florida was crushed on the boards (44-to-20) and Billy Donovan benched David Lee for much of the second half. That benching was credited by many for delivering a message to the Gator senior and springing him to a big final season in Orange and Blue. If you are not at the O'Connell Center, you'll be able to watch it live on FSN Florida.

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