After No. 1 Syracuse lost to Boston College on Wednesday, it has more or less been assumed that No. 2 Florida will hop up into that No. 1 spot when the new rankings come out on Monday morning.
The Gators have spent much of the past two months playing some of the best basketball in the country, but over the course of the last two games, Florida has been anything but great.
On Saturday, the Gators gave up 42 first half point to Ole Miss, 22 of which were scored by Marshall Henderson. They locked down in the second half, holding Henderson scoreless and giving up just 29 points in a 75-71 win, but it’s the second time this week that the Gators looked lackluster on the defensive end of the floor. On Wednesday, Florida dug themselves a 38-30 hole at the half at home against Auburn, needing the Tigers to make a couple of the dumbest plays we’ve seen all season long to be able to survive with the win.
Florida’s strength is on the defensive end of the floor. They have size, they have athleticism, they are versatile, they have quickness. They can go big or they can use two point guards. They can use a number of different variations of man-to-man, zone or pressing defenses. They are a nightmare to prepare for.
And they need to be, because the Gators can have some issues scoring the ball.
Florida doesn’t really have a star. Casey Prather is their leading scorer, but he isn’t really a go-to guy. Scottie Wilbekin is excellent in the pick-and-roll and has developed a knack for hitting all the big shots, but even he is more of a bulldog than he is a next-level talent. They’re good because no one is a liability offensively, but there is no one on that roster that scares you as an opposing coach. You have to build a game-plan around slowing down a Julius Randle or a Jabari Brown. The Gators don’t have that guy, and the result is that they can go through some lulls offensively.
Those offensive issues make being elite defensively just that much more important, and while the Gators have been tenacious in crunch-time, sleep-walking through the first half is going to come back to bite them eventually.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.