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Early season turmoil was a blessing in disguise for Florida

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Early on this season, there was not a team in the country that was dealing with more question marks on their roster than the Florida Gators.

Scottie Wilbekin, who has since turned into an all-american and the most valuable player on Florida, was suspended for the first five games of the season. It was the second time in an eight month span that Wilbekin was separated from the program for a violation of team rules. Dorian Finney-Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season for violating team rules as well. Chris Walker had to sit out the first 21 games of the season as he waited to get cleared by the NCAA to play. Damontre Harris isn’t even a part of the team.

And all that is before you factor in their injury issues. Kasey Hill has missed seven games this season, four because of an ankle injury in the first month of the season. Casey Prather missed a couple of games in the middle of the season. Eli Carter played in just seven games before he was shut down this season.

That’s a lot of turmoil to dump on a team during the first month of the season, and while it cost them a couple of games early in the year, the games that the Gators played without some of their key pieces in the lineup ended up being one of the keys to their success this season.

Florida’s a team that is built around their ability to defend; they’re No. 1 on KenPom in defensive efficiency, and while they are still top 20 in offensive efficiency, this isn’t a team that is loaded with NBA-caliber scorers. There’s a chance that the only guy on this roster that will end up playing in the NBA (Chris Walker) is currently averaging all of 4.0 minutes per game. Their success is centered around the fact that they are as balanced as any team in the country, that there simply is not a weak link for them on the offensive end of the floor.

And that is the result of players being forced into roles that they were unaccustomed to early in the season.

“It definitely helped me out knowing that I could score and do what I could do because I been doing it early in the season,” Prather said. “I could carry that throughout the season. I think the biggest thing was proving that we could win without a person.”

“It gave some guys more confidence because they had to do more,” Hill added.

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Prather is the best example. The 6-foot-6 forward couldn’t get off the bench his first two seasons in Gainesville and was nothing more than an oft-injured role player as a junior, but midway through December he was post all-american caliber numbers. He was top ten in our Player of the Year rankings for half the year as he was averaging more than 17 points at one point during the season. His scoring role decreased throughout the season as Wilbekin became a focal point of their offense and Michael Frazier became a more consistent shooter, but that didn’t change the fact that he had the confidence to be a threat offensively.

“I would like to have four to six guys in double figures,” head coach Billy Donovan said Friday, “because you don’t know what a team is going to try to take away from you. When a team takes certain things away from you, you still have to be able to have other guys step up in different situations and provide offense.”

It’s not just Prather, either.

Hill had two of his best games of the season while Wilbekin was suspended, scoring 15 points in a win over North Florida and notching 14 points, six assists and five steals as the Gators beat Arkansas-Little Rock. He didn’t score in double figures again this season until the opening round of the NCAA tournament, as he finished with 10 points and was the sparkplug for a pivotal run that allowed Florida to pull away after Albany tied the game in the second half.

“All we need is five guys and we’re going to compete,” Finney-Smith said. “Give us any five off our team and I feel like we’re going to win.”

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Five ranked teams fall, No. 12 Arizona survives

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GAME OF THE DAY: Syracuse 79, No. 18 UConn 76

The former Big East rivals met in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the game did not disappoint, with Jim Boeheim’s Orange pulling out a three-point victory. Michael Gbinije (17 points, seven assists) and Trevor Cooney played well on the perimeter, but junior Tyler Roberson and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon made some big plays as well.

UConn couldn’t get the rebound of a Cooney missed shot in the final seconds, not getting a chance at a game-tying shot as a result. Daniel Hamilton led the Huskies with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Rob Dauster wrote more about this game here.


Monmouth 70, No. 17 Notre Dame 68: Justin Robinson made two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to give the Hawks a two-point win over the Fighting Irish at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. Robinson scored a game-high 22 points, with Demetrius Jackson leading Notre Dame with 20.

No. 25 Texas A&M 62, No. 10 Gonzaga 61: Billy Kennedy’s team played outstanding defense on the Bulldogs’ final possession of the game, switching all screens and hanging on as Silas Melson’s shot missed the mark. Danuel House scored 19 points and Tonny Trocha-Morelos added 14 for the Aggies, who will play Syracuse in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game. Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Gonzaga.

San Diego State 72, No. 14 California 58: With 17:24 remaining the Golden Bears led 45-30 and looked well-positioned to advance to Friday’s Continental Las Vegas Classic title game. From that point on they were outscored 42-13, with SDSU combining improved offense with stifling defense. Winston Shepard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and Skylar Spencer added ten second-half points to lead the way for the Aztecs, who will play West Virginia Friday. Ivan Rabb scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Golden Bears.


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine posted his second triple-double of the season in the Spartans’ 99-68 win over Boston College, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.

Devin Williams, West Virginia: The junior forward scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers to a 67-59 win over Richmond in Las Vegas.

Charles Mitchell, Georgia Tech: Mitchell scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a win over Arkansas.

Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: Sure he shot 11-for-29 from the field in scoring his 44 points, but given Santa Clara’s youth and lack of a consistent supplementary scorer Brownridge has to take those shots. The Broncos took No. 12 Arizona to overtime before falling by two points.


Stanford: Not only did the Cardinal shoot 26 percent in their loss to No. 8 Villanova, but they also committed 23 turnovers on the day.

Ryan Kemrite, Liberty: Kemrite shot 1-for-10 from the field, scoring two points in the Flames’ 73-62 loss to Appalachian State.

Arizona’s perimeter shooting: The Wildcats shot 3-for-22 from three in a two-point win over Santa Clara. Over the last two games Sean Miller’s team has shot 8-for-44 from beyond the arc.


  • No. 3 Michigan State rolled to a 99-68 win over Boston College, with the result being Tom Izzo’s 500th win as a head coach. Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.
  • No. 8 Villanova shot just 30.6 percent from the field, but their opponents shot even worse in the 59-46 Wildcat win over Stanford. The Cardinal shot 26 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers.
  • No. 12 Arizona survived questionable shot selection and a 44-point night from Jared Brownridge to beat winless Santa Clara 75-73 in overtime. Ryan Anderson scored 17 to lead the way for Arizona, which lost Kaleb Tarczewski in the second half to a left ankle injury.
  • Bennie Boatwright scored 22 points to lead USC to a 72-69 win over No. 20 Wichita State. Ron Baker led all scorers with 25 points, but he and Markis McDuffie (14 points) were the only Shockers to reach double figures.
  • No. 23 Xavier took over in the second half of its game against Alabama, outscoring the Crimson Tide by 16 points to win by the final score of 64-45.


  • Texas exacted a measure of revenge on Washington, beating the Huskies 82-70 at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Huskies won the first meeting between the two teams this season in Shanghai in the season opener for both.
  • Georgia Tech advanced to the title game of the Preseason NIT with a ten-point win over Arkansas in Brooklyn. Charles Mitchell went for 18 points and 18 rebounds for the Yellow Jackets, who play No. 8 Villanova Friday.
  • Anthony Drmic scored 21 points and Chandler Hutchison added 13 points and ten rebounds as Boise State beat UC Irvine 71-64 at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California.
  • Devin Williams scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards in West Virginia’s 67-59 win over Richmond at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. The Mountaineers only forced 14 turnovers, but they made up for it by limiting Richmond to 39.1 percent shooting.
  • Ben Bentil scored 24 points and Kris Dunn added 18 as Providence beat Evansville 74-64. The 24 points represents a career high for Bentil.
  • Scoochie Smith made two huge baskets and Charles Cooke scored 22 points as Dayton went on a game-ending 11-2 run to beat Iowa 82-77. Jarrod Uthoff led the Hawkeyes with 18 points.
  • Moritz Wagner scored 19 points to lead four players in double figures as Michigan rolled to a 102-47 win over Charlotte. After struggling offensively against UConn on Wednesday, the Wolverines shot 61.9 percent from the field against the 49ers.

No. 3 Michigan State routs Boston College 99-68

Tom Izzo
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FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) Denzel Valentine had a triple-double of 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and No. 3 Michigan State beat Boston College 99-68 Thursday in an opening-round game at the DirectTV Wooden Legacy, giving coach Tom Izzo his 500th career victory.

Valentine helped the Spartans expand their 13-point halftime lead to 27 midway through the second half. His second triple-double of the season was the first in the event’s nine-year history.

Valentine’s six 3-pointers were one off his career high, and his points total was a career best.

Tum Tum Nairn added 13 points and eight assists for the Spartans, who shot 63 percent and dominated the boards 38-20.

After the final buzzer, Izzo’s players gathered around him at midcourt, holding up “Izzo 500” signs and posing for photos.

Eli Carter, a graduate transfer from Florida, led the Eagles with 22 points – one off his career high at BC.

The Spartans (5-0) next play Boise State (3-2) on Friday. The Broncos beat UC Irvine 71-64 in the day’s first game at cozy Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

Boston College (3-1) will play Irvine (4-1) on Friday.

After hitting consecutive 3-pointers, Valentine backpedaled up the court smiling at Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green sitting courtside. Valentine converted a one-handed jam off a turnover and dashed over to high-five Green, clearly delighted by his alma mater’s theatrics.

Valentine scored 14 points in Michigan State’s 25-11 run to open the second half. The Spartans made four straight 3-pointers in the spurt, with Valentine hitting three in a row and passing to Bryn Forbes for the other.

The Eagles tried rallying from the perimeter, getting three straight 3s while closing to 80-59. It didn’t help. Valentine sparked a 10-0 burst with a basket and an assist that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 88-59.

The Spartans led 46-33 at halftime, getting 13 straight points from Valentine in a 23-13 run to close the half. He had eight points as the Spartans rattled off 10 in a row to launch the spurt that produced their largest lead of 15.

Michigan State shot 62 percent in the game’s opening minutes and built a 19-10 lead before Valentine even made his first basket. The Eagles answered with a 10-4 run to close to 23-20 before Valentine’s offensive outburst gave the Spartans a cushion.


Boston College: The Eagles were trying for their first 4-0 start since 2007. … Assistant coach Stan Heath, in his first season with the Eagles, spent five years in the same job under Izzo before leaving after the 2001 season.

Michigan State: Green played for the Spartans from 2008-12. … Michigan State evened the all-time series 3-3. … Valentine joined Green as one of only four Spartans to record a triple-double. Green had three in his career.


Boston College plays UC Irvine on Friday.

Michigan State plays Boise State on Friday.