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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: No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 20 Providence continue losing ways; No. 16 SMU falls at home

Texas A&M guard Anthony Collins (11) walks up the court during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Alabama, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 63-62. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Alabama 63, No. 15 Texas A&M 62

This one was tight until the final seconds and the Aggies had a chance to tie or take the lead with one of the nation’s best free-throw shooters at the line. Anthony Collins, a 92 percent free-throw shooter, missed both and Texas A&M continued its recent freefall. So what happens next for the Aggies?

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

Marquette 96, No. 20 Providence 91, 2 OT: Marquette picked up a crucial season sweep over Providence in the Big East as freshman Henry Ellenson had 26 points and 16 rebounds and Haanif Cheatham tallied 21 points. The Friars saw Ben Bentil go for 41 points, but they still lost because he didn’t have enough help in the end.

Tulsa 82, No. 16 SMU 77: Nice road win for the Golden Hurricane in the American as Shaquille Harrison and James Woodard combined for 41 points. Tulsa shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field to give the Mustangs their first home loss of the season.

Butler 81, Seton Hall 75: An important Big East road win for the Bulldogs as Roosevelt Jones made a late runner in traffic to ice the win. Kelan Martin tallied 23 points for Butler while Kellan Dunham added 18. After Isaiah Whitehead went 8-for-8 for 23 points in the first half, the Bulldogs defense held the sophomore to only three points in the second half. 

South Carolina 94, LSU 83: The Gamecocks continue to stockpile wins as they’re up to 21-3 on the season while gaining a share of first place in the SEC. Sindarius Thornwell finished with 24 points while Michael Carrera had 14 of his 16 points in the second half to lead South Carolina. Ben Simmons finished with 20 points while Antonio Blakeney had 22 points.

BUBBLE BANTER: Butler, Wisconsin among early winners

STARRED

Devonta Pollard, Houston: The former McDonald’s All-American certainly lived up to that billing in a win over Memphis as he went for 34 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the field. Pollard also added four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Louis Dabney, Tulane: It only took three overtimes, but the Green Wave outlasted East Carolina as Dabney hit huge shots and pumped in 32 points. Dabney hit a game-tying jumper with under a minute left to end regulation and the first overtime as he went 11-for-20 from the floor.

Anthony Beane, Southern Illinois: The senior guard went for 31 points and six rebounds as the Salukis earned a Missouri Valley road win at Indiana State. Beane was 10-for-17 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range.

Tra-Deon Hollins, Omaha: In a matchup of two of the top teams in the Summit League, Hollins had a stat-sheet-stuffing effort in a win over South Dakota State, as the junior guard had 28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals. Hollins was 9-for-12 from the field and 8-for-11 from the free-throw line.

STRUGGLED

Tim Quarterman, LSU: The guard finished with seven points on 2-for-7 shooting (0-for-5 from 3-point range) and fouled out in a loss to South Carolina. Quarterman also had three turnovers and was mostly a non-factor.

OTHER TOP 25 RESULTS

  • Playing without Rico Gathers, No. 21 Baylor earned a road win at Kansas State in the Big 12 as Al Freeman had 21 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • Wisconsin has won six consecutive games as Nigel Hayes had 20 points and Vitto Brown added 18 points in a Big Ten home win over Nebraska.
  • Vanderbilt cruised past Missouri as five players finished in double-figures. Wade Baldwin led with 17 points while Luke Kornet had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
  • Utah picked up a solid Pac-12 home win over Washington as Jakob Poeltl had 23 points and six rebounds. Poeltl was 11-for-12 from the field.
  • It wasn’t pretty, but Michigan won on the road in the Big Ten at Minnesota. Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. had 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to pace the Wolverines.
  • Georgia Tech topped Wake Forest in the ACC as Marcus Georges-Hunt went for 30 points and Charles Mitchell had 14 points and 15 rebounds.
  • Davidson beat La Salle in the Atlantic 10 as Brian Sullivan had 20 points and seven assists.
  • St. Bonaventure was able to outlast Fordham in overtime as Dion Wright and Marcus Posley both had 21 points.
  • Saint Joseph’s earned a great road win in the Atlantic 10 at George Washington as Isaiah Miles had 21 points.
  • T.J. Cline finished with 18 points as Richmond defeated Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10.
  • Northern Iowa ran away from Missouri State as Jeremy Morgan had 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
  • Belmont earned a win over Jacksonville State in the Ohio Valley as Evan Bradds had 18 points and nine rebounds.

Marquette upsets No. 20 Providence in double overtime to earn season sweep

Marquette's Duane Wilson grabs a loose ball in front of Providence's Ryan Fazekas (35) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
(AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Marquette earned an important Big East season sweep for its postseason aspirations as they held on in double overtime to upset No. 20 Providence 96-91 on Wednesday night.

The Golden Eagles (16-9, 5-7) overcame rallies from the Friars in both regulation and the first overtime to finally put away the home victory. Freshmen led the way for Marquette as Henry Ellenson had 26 points and 16 rebounds while Haanif Cheatham added 21 points.

Providence was led by Ben Bentil, as he poured in 41 points by hitting numerous tough looks to keep the Friars in the game. Player of the Year candidate Kris Dunn finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists for Providence but he committed a key turnover on an errant pass when the game was tied on the final possession in regulation. Dunn fouled out in the first overtime and Bentil did his best to knock in tough 3-pointers (6-for-13) to keep Providence in the game.

Marquette did just about everything they could to give this game away but still came away with a critical win. The Golden Eagles blew a nine-point lead in the second half and showed their youthful inexperience by fouling Bentil on a key 3-point attempt in extra time. With a chance to make it a two-possession game at the end of the first overtime, Cheatham corralled an offensive rebound — on a bad shot attempt in the first place — and put up a wild putback attempt when the Golden Eagles could have run clock and forced Providence to foul.

Despite those mistakes, the Golden Eagles have to be pleased to pick up a season sweep over the Friars as they beat a good team twice in very tight games. Playing without center Luke Fischer in overtime, Marquette still managed to pick up the victory. Coming off of consecutive losses, Marquette needed this win badly as they now get Creighton twice with a road game at DePaul sandwiched in between.

As for Providence (18-7, 6-6), Bentil showed that he’s recovering just fine from that ankle injury but this team still needs more help outside of the dynamic duo of Dunn and Bentil. It was encouraging that Providence rallied in the first overtime without Dunn in the game to force more time, but Bentil ran out of gas in the second overtime and didn’t have much help to keep the Friars in the game. The Friars have now dropped four of their last five games, including a three-game losing streak that includes road losses at DePaul and Marquette. Providence is back to .500 in the Big East and needs a solid showing its next three games against solid competition.