No. 4 Florida piling up wins with stingy defense
Billy Donovan has coached plenty of good defensive teams in his 17 seasons at Florida.
None of them quite like this.
The fourth-ranked Gators have been ridiculously stingy this season, especially in Southeastern Conference play.
Florida (17-2, 7-0 SEC) ranks second in the nation in scoring defense, giving up a paltry 50.4 points a game. The Gators have held 15 teams under 60 points, 11 under 50 and three under 40.
The latest defensive masterpiece came Wednesday night against South Carolina. In winning its ninth consecutive game, Florida allowed the program's fewest points (36) in conference play during the shot-clock era.
For an encore, the league's top scoring team, Mississippi visits Gainesville on Saturday to test Florida's defense.
The 16th-ranked Rebels (17-3, 6-1) are averaging 80 points a game and should provide a tough test for Florida's stout D.
No SEC team has really challenged the Gators so far. Florida has won seven games by an average of 28.3 points, looking like the class of the field in a watered-down league.
"We're just consistent," forward Will Yeguete said. "We have a couple of breakdowns a game, but we stay consistent. We keep guarding teams every single time, possession after possession. ... It's good to say that you're a really good defensive team."
Few Donovan-coached teams even compare.
The back-to-back national champions - the ones led by Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah - used to be considered Donovan's best defensive group. And the 1999-2000 team, which advanced to the NCAA final, had top-notch defenders in guard Justin Hamilton and forward Brent Wright.
But none of those teams had as much defensive depth as this year's unit.
Between guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kenny Boynton, swingman Casey Prather, Yeguete and center Pat Young, the Gators have five players who take as much pride in stops and steals as dunks and jumpers.
"When you're a kid growing up playing the game of basketball, or if you're a kid growing up playing the game of football, I can't imagine that many guys that want to go to the park today and play and say, `I'm not going to take my ball, but I'm going to do defensive slides for two hours. I'm going to work on running back in transition. I'm going to grab some people in the school yard to run me over and take charges,'" Donovan said. "Those things that you're talking about doing are not things that are enjoyable.
"But I often find that the things that make teams successful are the players that have the desire to do the things that are uncomfortable."
Making opponents uncomfortable starts with Wilbekin and Boynton, both aggressive, on-ball defenders who have the quickness and stamina to run the press, the length to affect perimeter shots and the kind of experience that makes it easy to get them on the same page.
Wilbekin kept Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (season-low 11 points), Texas A&M's Elston Turner (4 points on 1-of-10 shooting) and Missouri's Phil Pressey (2 points, 10 turnovers) in check last month. And Boynton was equally effective the last two games against Mississippi State's Jalen Steele (scoreless) and South Carolina's Bruce Ellington (7 points on 2-of-9 shooting).
Maybe the most overlooked part of what Wilbekin and Boynton have done is how they have made everyone around them want to play better defense. Young, forward Erik Murphy and guard Mike Rosario are playing the best defense of their careers.
"It's contagious," Rosario said. "We're all feeding off those guys and what they're doing in the press and on the defensive end."
The Gators are motivated to keep it going, too.
They ended NCAA tournament runs the last two years by collapsing on the defensive end.
Florida was up 11 with about 8 minutes to play against Louisville last year, but managed just three points the rest of the way and lost 72-68. The 2010-11 season ended in similar fashion. The Gators led Butler by 11 points midway through the second half before faltering down the stretch and losing in overtime.
"This team has been to two Elite Eights and we've seen how a lack of defense will let a team back in a game," Boynton said. "It's definitely a mental thing with us: we've been there before and we're not to let it happen again."