Riding a four-game winning streak and coming off an Orlando Classic title, where the Jayhawks beat a strong Michigan State team in the finals (61-56 on Nov. 30), No. 11 Kansas now welcomes No. 24 Florida in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Friday at 8 p.m. in Allen Fieldhouse.
This is a big-time early-season game with ESPN’s Jon Sciambi, Dick Vitale and Holly Rowe calling the action.
The Jayhawks (5-1) can’t wait to get another shot at UF, which beat them, 67-61, last season on Dec. 10. The No. 19 Gators raced out to a 36-21 halftime lead, while No. 13 KU rallied furiously in the second half to make the final score close. Florida scored 28 points off KU’s 24 turnovers, while Kansas scored just four points off UF’s eight turnovers.
“We all watched and played in that game and it wasn’t pretty at all,” said redshirt sophomore forward Landen Lucas, “so to be able to play them again is going to be fun for us and it’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.”
Florida is just 3-3 this season with losses to Miami (69-67) at home on Nov. 17 and also to Georgetown in overtime (66-65) on Nov. 26 and then to No. 5 North Carolina (75-64) on Nov. 28 -- both defeats in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Bahamas.
KU coach Bill Self isn’t that surprised Florida has struggled thus far.
“No, not really, because they played a hard schedule,” Self said. “They were so beat up when they lost to Miami at home, so beat up. If you saw the shots that Angel (Rodriguez of Miami) made to win the game, it was a joke. It looked like Sherron (Collins) against OU several years ago, just making some hard plays.
“And then you go over there (to Bahamas) and Georgetown is really good and they lose a one-possession game in overtime; and Carolina is really talented and they got off to a bad start and actually played pretty well after that. When you play good people/teams, you sometimes lose, especially when you're beat up, but they're healthy now.”
Self has studied tape from last year’s Florida game.
“Even though the game ended up being respectable from a score standpoint, I think (we lost by) six, but they totally dominated us,” Self said. “We played awful. They were the best defensive team in the country last year and they're very good defensively again. They're definitely a team that will be a high seed in the tournament.”
Florida, which reached the Final Four last season under head coach Billy Donovan, averages 63.5 points and has a +3.8 scoring margin. The Gators are outrebounding foes 37.7 to 33.0 and make 6.0 threes per game. Florida forces 14.8 turnovers per contest and averages 11.7 assists.
Junior guard Michael Frazier II leads UF in scoring at 15.2 points per game while making a team-high 14 three-pointers. He’s followed in scoring by senior center Jon Horford (10.3 ppg, team-high 7.0 rebounds and 10 blocks), junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10.3 ppg), redshirt junior guard Eli Carter (9.0 ppg) and sophomore guard Kasey Hill (8.2 ppg, team-best 21 assists). Chris Walker, a sophomore forward who was a heralded recruit out of high school, averages 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Self is impressed with Donovan’s team.
“Hill and Walker were two of the most talented guys coming out of high school,” Self said. “They both were maybe top-10 guys, maybe even higher than that. They're really talented.
“Frazier can score,” Self added. “He was their designated shooter last year. He can really shoot the ball. He hasn't shot as great yet. He hasn't shot it poorly, but he hadn't shot it great yet like he's capable of. They have really good players.”
So do the Jayhawks, who have progressed nicely since the Kentucky game (72-40 loss) on Nov. 18 in the Champions Classic.
“I think we've rebounded the ball better,” Self said. “That's been pretty evident. At least it was in Orlando. (We’ve) probably shared the ball, moved it a little better. (We) still haven't shot very well yet. I just think we look a little bit more organized than what we were, obviously, playing Kentucky.”
It will take another great effort on the boards and great team ball to beat Florida. Self has great respect for Donovan and the two national titles he won at UF in 2006 and 2007.
Donovan is 454-172 in his 19th season at Florida and 492-192 in his 21st season overall.
“He's as good as our profession has,” Self said. “He's a great coach, he's a good guy and they do it the right way. He's won two and what's great about his two (national championships) is that he won one when nobody thought they were any good and he won one when everybody expected them to go undefeated. So he's been able to handle the pressures of both of those situations. They were the best team in America last year and ended up losing in the Final Four, but over time they were the best team.
“We played them last year (when) they were ranked like 19th or 20th in the country, and of course, they handled us quite easily. I knew that they were good. I didn't know they would be that good, but they improved and got tougher and harder defensively and he and his staff have done a great job.”