Florida entered the season ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, however, it was with a depleted roster that included players ineligible, suspended or injured.
The Gators lost a road game inside the Kohl Center to the currently unbeaten Wisconsin Badgers, which caused them to fall outside the top 10. Last Monday, Shabazz Napier drained his second chance at a game winner, running out of Gampel Pavilion with what could have been a huge road victory for Florida.
On Tuesday night at home, No. 19 Florida — in the middle of a difficult three game slate — looked like the team that was worthy of the preseason praise, taking a double-digit first half lead before holding off a Jayhawks comeback in a 67-61 win No. 13 Kansas at home as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Florida started out slow, trailing 10-3. But the Gators extended 1-3-1 zone sparked a 21-0 run. During that span the Jayhawks missed all six shots, and committed six turnovers, struggling to make passes against the length and quickness of the zone, especially on the wings with 6-foot-7 Will Yeguete on one side and the 6-foot-6 Casey Prather on the other.
Despite holding a consistent eight to 12-point lead for most of the second half, Kansas made a late-game comeback led by the second half play of Andrew Wiggins, who posted season highs in points (26) — 20 came in the second half — and rebounds (11), recording his first double-double with KU.
Florida earns a huge win, finally starting to get a complete, or nearly complete roster. Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin (18 points) played their first regular season game together in the Gators back court, and more good news could be one the way as top-10 recruit Chris Walker may be set to join the team within a week or so.
With the roster coming more and more together, you can see just how dangerous Billy Donovan’s club can be. Hill and Wilbekin gives the Gators two ball handlers, who can also pressure opposing guards. Prather is one of the most improved scorers in the country at 19.1 per game. And the front court is talented and deep.
Florida, which finished third in scoring defense last season, can throw different looks at teams defensively, including that 1-3-1 zone that helped force 24 KU turnovers (16 in the first half).
We’ve wondered what the Gators would look like with all their players in uniform instead out due to injuries, or off the court issues. Tuesday night offered a good idea of what that might look like in the upcoming months. And the Gators are still waiting to be at full strength, pending Walker’s eligibility.
Florida gets a chance add another quality non-conference victory next Tuesday against No. 16 Memphis at Madison Square Garden, the end of a string of three consecutive games against ranked opponents.