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Scouting Report: Florida
College football scheduling often favors the safer and more timid approach. Schools schedule cupcake games so that they can bank a lot of wins and rely on a few key conference clashes to elevate them in the polls. College basketball scheduling is different. Non-conference slates have to feature a few titanic tests in order to prepare teams for conference competition. In this 2012-2013 campaign, Air Force will face no bigger out-of-conference obstacle than the one provided by the Florida Gators in the second half of the Metro PCS Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise, Fla.
This game will technically be a neutral-site event, but the Gators will have a partisan crowd to cheer them on. Air Force's best hope on Saturday is that Florida State beats Tulsa in the first game of the afternoon. Seminole fans might leave the arena if Florida State loses, but an FSU victory would give the folks from Tallahassee a good reason to cheer against the Gators… and for the Academy. The key point, though, is that Air Force has to give Florida State fans a good reason to stay involved.
The Falcons begin their Mountain West season on Jan. 9. Only a stop at Richmond (on Jan. 2) separates Air Force from two and a half months of vigorous backyard competition in a very deep league, one that promises a contentious and punishing race in the early months of 2013. If Air Force wants to send a message to the rest of the Mountain West, beating Florida would do the trick. It's time to see if the Falcons can play a high-level game away from Colorado Springs.
It's remarkable how quickly a narrative can change for a basketball program, and also for a specific team within the course of one season. Florida head coach Billy Donovan has endured a basketball journey in which his reputation – which should be secure – has instead been subjected to all kinds of second-guessing and peanut-gallery diminishment.
Heading into the 2005-2006 season, it was legitimate to question Donovan's chops as a big-time collegiate head coach. He had made just one Final Four in what was a Cinderella-like run (in 2000 as a No. 5 seed). His Florida teams in the first five years of the 21st century had generally flamed out on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The Gators lost in the first round (now called the round of 64) in 2002 and 2004, and they bowed out in the round of 32 in 2001, 2003 and 2005. Donovan had built Florida to a point where it was always in the mix for a Sweet 16 ticket, but the Final Four had become consistently elusive since the 2000 joyride. Donovan had a lot to prove to his critics; his career faced a crossroads.
Then came the 2006 and 2007 seasons, fueled by a special group of players that wrote its names in college basketball's history books. NBA star Joakim Noah, the charismatic leader who learned how to cultivate stage presence from his always-performing father, joined Al Horford (a solid NBA player in his own right), Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, and Lee Humphrey on back-to-back national champions in Gainesville. The Gators won it all as a No. 3 seed in 2006, and then decided to come back as a group in order to repeat in 2007 with a bulls-eye firmly on their backs. Florida's fabulous five withstood the pressure and, on April 2, 2007, defeated Ohio State in Atlanta to become the first repeat national champion in college hoops since Duke did the deed in 1992 under Mike Krzyzewski.
Donovan had become a special coach in the history of his sport. Moreover, he wasn't a one-trick pony who gained every favorable bounce in an unexpected March run (2006). He showed his peers in 2007 that he could lead a team of thoroughbreds across the finish line in the face of enormous expectations and round-the-clock scrutiny. When you win one national championship, you've done something noteworthy. When you win two national titles, you're not a flash in the pan or a lucky duck.
Yet, for some fans, Donovan hasn't really done that much at Florida. The three teams that followed the Class of 2007 did not mesh well on the court. Florida never got past the round of 64 and missed the NCAA tournament twice. Donovan had not sustained momentum from his two crowning seasons, leading outsiders to wonder if he'd lost his touch. When Florida made the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons, critiques should have been silenced, but the fact that Florida blew double-digit leads in each of its two regional final losses only served to emphasize the missed opportunities and the inability to get back to the Final Four. The achievements found in a pair of Elite Eight seasons were lost upon many.
This season, Florida and Donovan have yet again encountered the fickle winds of change, relative to their standing in the college basketball world. Through the first month of the season, Florida had not lost a game. The Gators didn't just beat Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State, three NCAA tournament teams from last season; they annihilated them. Florida looked as cohesive and confident at both ends of the floor as any team since the 2007 juggernaut. The Gators' horizons seemed endless, and for the first 39 minutes of a high-profile game at Arizona on Dec. 15, Florida played with that same winning edge.
Then came the shift that has shaken the Gators in recent weeks. Florida's guards got rattled in the 40th and final minute in Tucson, Ariz., coughing up multiple turnovers that allowed Arizona to go on a 7-0 run in the final 56 seconds and steal a 65-64 win. A week later against Kansas State in Kansas City, Florida never seemed to get that stomach-punch loss to Arizona out of its psyche. The Gators didn't shoot confidently, squeezing the trigger much too tightly against KSU, the second group of Wildcats to hand Florida a high-profile non-conference loss this season. It's not as though Florida took bad shots, though. The Gators got open threes but did not display fluid form or technique. This is a team that is doubting itself after meeting virtually no resistance in the first month of the season. Florida has been punched in the gut – twice, not once – and now, it must put the past behind it. Air Force has to give Florida more reason to doubt itself. Chiefly, the Falcons must make sure that the Gators don't get easy baskets or ample free-throw attempts.
Forward – Patric Young – Junior, 6-9, 249 2012-13: 10.9 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, 2.1 blocked shots per game
Young is a beast, the player who provides more matchup problems for more Florida opponents than anyone else. Young is a load to handle inside. He has developed a six-foot jump hook from the middle of the paint that is very hard to stop. Young's brawny, muscular frame enables him to seal out opponents on the glass. Yet, his physical style of play does not prevent him from getting off the ground. Some low-post players are bolted to the floor, relying solely on positioning or a wide body to defend the rim and clog driving lanes for opposing slashers. Young isn't constrained in such a manner. He carries 249 pounds lightly, elevating to block shots and make opponents think twice about taking the ball to the tin. The scope of Young's impact is considerable, and over the past two weeks, he has been Florida's best player. It's the backcourt that has regressed; Donovan needs to make sure that Young gets plenty of post touches against Air Force.
Forward – Erik Murphy – Senior, 6-10, 238; 2012-13: 11.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg
Murphy is Florida's best three-point shooter, hitting 43.6 percent of his attempts. However, one has to realize that Murphy's overall statistical profile is the product of an aberrationally great game, against Wisconsin on Nov. 14. Murphy hit all 10 of his field goal attempts in that contest and both of his threes, pouring in 24 points against the Badgers. If you remove that game from Murphy's dossier, the lanky wing shooter would be averaging fewer than 10 points per contest. Air Force could have trouble defending Murphy if Florida's other shooters – particularly Kenny Boynton – get hot, but if no one on the Gators' roster distorts the shape of Air Force's defense in the first half, the Falcons can stay in front of Murphy and keep him under wraps. Murphy won't beat any defender off the dribble on a consistent basis, and that's one of his foremost limitations as an offensive player.
Guard – Scottie Wilbekin – Junior, 6-2, 176; 2012-13: 8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.5 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game
Wilbekin is a coach's delight. He doesn't insist on scoring as a primary way of contributing to his team's best interests. Wilbekin is willing to do all the other things that produce quality possessions and defensive stops. He shares the ball and doesn't turn it over very often. He helps out on the glass and uses his quick hands to become an effective pickpocket. Wilbekin's best and most outstanding basketball virtue is that he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.3 to 1, easily the best ratio on the Gators' roster. Wilbekin will be a tough opponent for the Falcons in this game, and more so when Air Force has the ball. The Falcons will need to make Boynton and teammate Mike Rosario work extra hard on defense; Air Force can't steer its halfcourt offense to or through the man Wilbekin is guarding.
Guard – Kenny Boynton – Senior, 6-2, 190; 2012-13: 12.4 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.7 apg
This is the player who has to get going in order for Florida to reach its potential this season. Boynton is a high-volume perimeter shooter – he has attempted at least 242 threes in each of his first three full seasons. Last season, he made himself into a particularly accurate marksman, hitting 40.7 percent of his threes and 44 percent of all field goal attempts. This year, however, Boynton is hitting just 27.9 percent of his threes and 35.6 percent of all field goals, both career lows. Boynton is shooting worse than he did as a freshman in the 2009-2010 campaign. Boynton can still make a difference at the defensive end of the floor, but unless or until he shoots well, Florida will remain a conspicuously incomplete team on offense. Air Force needs to make sure that Boynton doesn't see the ball go through the hoop in the first eight or nine minutes of this contest (by the time the under-12 television timeout arrives).
Guard – Mike Rosario – Senior, 6-3, 183; 2012-13: 12.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
Rosario hasn't been consistently good like Young, and he hasn't consistently struggled the way Boynton has. He's not the glue guy Wilbekin has proven to be, and he's not limited the way Murphy is. Rosario has been up and down this season. He's a multi-tool player who can create his own shot, drive to the basket, and make creative plays both in traffic and near the rim. Rosario is a player who will showcase a silky-smooth handle and a clear thought process in one sequence and then crumble under pressure in the next. This tendency was revealed in the latter stages of Florida's game at Arizona. Rosario held up so well for so long, only to disintegrate in the final minute of regulation. He's a 35-percent three-point shooter and a 44.6-percent field goal shooter. Keeping him out of the paint and taking away his right hand are the keys to containing him.
Donovan doesn't go very deep into his bench, using three primary reserves in an eight-man rotation: Will Yeguete, Casey Prather, and Michael Frazier II. Yeguete is a gritty forward who knows how to get to the ball on the glass. Air Force has to cope with his presence on the boards and as a rim-protector. Prather is a terrific perimeter defender who does not look to score. The Falcons can cheat off him when Florida has the ball. Frazier is a freshman who loves to shoot the three – he has attempted 44 field goals this season, 35 from long range. Making Frazier defend must be a priority for Air Force, which can exploit Frazier as a defender in ways it won't be able to do with Prather.
Keys to the Game
1) Bottle up Boynton. As you can see from everything that's been said above, if Boynton doesn't shoot well, Florida doesn't have enough creators at the other spots on the floor. Air Force will be able to offer help on Young's man and keep Murphy under control. Rosario and Wilbekin will have to look for their shots instead of feeding teammates on kickouts or (in Young's case) low-post entries. Boynton is the hinge-point player for Florida; if he flourishes, Florida becomes a Final Four team. If he remains in the dumps, the Gators are extremely vulnerable.
2) Make the right people defend. If Air Force can attack Murphy, Boynton, Rosario, and (on the bench) Frazier, the Falcons will minimize the impact of Florida's elite defenders (Young, Wilbekin, Yeguete, and Prather). The Falcons have to find the right pressure points in Florida's defense, the spaces where the Gators can be exploited.
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