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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.”

No. 22 Cincinnati’s loss to No. 16 Butler shines light on AAC’s struggles

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 10: Head coach Mick Cronin of the Cincinnati Bearcats reacts against the Butler Bulldogs in the first half of the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse on December 10, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Kelan Martin scored 20 points and Andrew Chrabascz added 12 points, four boards and five assists as No. 16 Butler bounced back from a tough loss at Indiana State to beat No. 22 Cincinnati, 75-65.

The Bulldogs had been undefeated on the season prior to the loss to the Sycamores, but their ranking was built on the fact that they had beaten Arizona, who was No. 8 at the time, as well as a trio of high-major programs that look destined for the NIT.

Cincinnati probably isn’t destined for the NIT. Their top 25 ranking is justified, which is what makes this win valuable. Quality non-conference wins matter, and this is just one of a handful of good wins for what has proven to be one of the most top-heavy conferences in the country. Villanova, Creighton, Xavier and Butler all look capable of reaching the Sweet 16 this season.

The opposite is true for Cincinnati, who look like the flag-bearer in a conference that isn’t really all that good. They’re the best team in the AAC this season, but that’s a conference that has consistently disappointed this year. SMU, Temple and UConn have all struggled more than we expected them to. Tulsa and Memphis are in rebuilding mode. Houston was supposed to be good this season but they’ve yet to live up to the preseason hype.

Think about it like this: The only team in the AAC without multiple losses on the season is now UCF. That’s … not ideal, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how many bids the league is able to generate.

Think about it. Temple has beaten West Virginia and Florida State while losing to New Hampshire and UMass. SMU’s best win is either Pitt or TCU, both of whom are borderline tournament teams. UConn beat Syracuse but has some atrocious losses on their resume. Houston beat Rhode Island but lost to Arkansas and LSU. Memphis beat Iowa, but Iowa’s not all that good. UCF’s best win is … Mississippi State?

Cincinnati’s lone quality win is at Iowa State, who is about to drop out of the top 25.

POSTERIZED: Wichita State’s Daishon Smith dunks on Oklahoma big man

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Daishon Smith of the Wichita State Shockers drives up court past forward Roschon Prince #23 of the Long Beach State 49ers during the first half on November 13, 2016 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Daishon Smith is 6-foot-1.

Kristian Doolittle is 6-foot-7.

The lil guy won this battle:

Here’s another angle of the dunk, which sent Wichita State’s bench into hysterics:

POSTERIZED: Duke’s Grayson Allen with a Dunk of the Year candidate (VIDEO)

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It looks like Grayson Allen’s toe is healthy. I’d say his explosivness is back:

Whoa.

Yeah.

POSTERIZED: Five-star Class of 2017 guard Trevon Duval dunks on 6’8″ defender

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 9: Trevon Duval during the 2015  Under Armour All-America Basketball Camp on July 9, 2015 at Queens College in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Under Armour)
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Class of 2017 point guard Trevon Duval put down a huge poster dunk on a 6’8″ defender on Saturday as the five-star prospect showed why many consider him the top lead guard in high school basketball.

The 6-foot-2 Duval is considered the No. 3 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.

Nigel Hayes shines against as No. 17 Wisconsin beats Marquette

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 10:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is fouled by Luke Fischer #40 of the Marquette Golden Eagles during the first half of a game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 10, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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What a difference a year makes.

Last season at this time, Wisconsin dropped a home game to a Marquette team that was headed to the NIT.

This year?

The Badgers put six players in double-figures as they went into Milwaukee and knocked off Marquette, 93-84.

Bronson Koenig continued his hot shooting, finishing with 18 points and six assists while shooting 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Vitto Brown chipped in with 15 points, Khalil Iverson had 16 and Ethan Happ chipped in with 11 despite battling foul trouble all afternoon.

But the really story here – hell, the story of Wisconsin’s season to date – has been the change in the way that Nigel Hayes plays.

Hayes was terrific again on Saturday. He had 17 points, nine boards, four assists and three steals. He shot 6-for-10 from the floor and attempted just a pair of threes, making one of them. He had the ball in his hands when Wisconsin was trying to kill off the game, and, more importantly, head coach Greg Gard has seem to start to take advantage of just how good Hayes can be as a facilitator.

There are a couple of points that need to be made here:

  1. When Hayes plays like this, he deserves to be in the all-american discussion. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 boards and 6.7 assists in the three games Wisconsin has played against high-major competition since the change, and the Badgers have won five straight games while playing easily their best basketball of the season.
  2. And it’s not just because of the numbers he puts up. When Hayes operates as Wisconsin’s de-facto point guard, it makes everyone else on the roster better. For starters, it allows Koenig to play off the ball, where he seems to be more effective. He’s at his best when he’s hunting shots and trying to create off the bounce, but his aggressiveness can be detrimental when he’s the only one touching the ball. It also means offense runs through Happ more often since Koenig isn’t dominating possession, and it lets guys like Brown space the floor because they’re actually able to get rhythm threes.

As of today, Wisconsin is the favorite to win the Big Ten, even if Indiana is far more likely to end up being a No. 1 seed in March.