Florida is preparing for a late-season conference and tournament run in an interesting way: with close early-season battles against strong competition.
Challenging early games, mixed with combining some new players on the floor, make it a bit too early for the Gators to panic… even though it might seem panic is warranted.
With last Friday’s 11-point loss in the Battle 4 Atlantis to North Carolina, the Gators dropped to .500 at 3-3. However, their other two losses are by two to Miami in Gainesville and by one to Georgetown in the Bahamas last Wednesday.
The ultimate goals for the Gators will come in March, but the SEC gives Florida a challenge when it comes to competition. While the 3-3 record would put Florida near the bottom of the SEC, it is clearly not the strongest year for the conference. With limited competition inside the conference, the Gators must find it necessary to get their toughest battles outside the SEC.
While Florida was expected to be the best competition to Kentucky in the conference, the loss to Miami at home was an alert. However, the Hurricanes are stronger than expected as well, sitting at 7-0. Battles like this earlier in the season will get the Gators more prepared for the Wildcats’ size and athleticism.
However, while there is time in which to improve, there are clearly glaring offensive issues in Gainesville. Florida shot just 34 percent in last Thursday’s victory over UAB, and 33 percent in the loss to the Tar Heels. That marked the fourth straight game the Gators were under 36 percent from the floor. The poor shooting from the field coexisted with 13-of-23 shooting from the foul line against the Blazers. Additionally, the Gators are in the mid-200s in the country in scoring, averaging just 63.4 points per game entering Friday.
Another alarming point is the injury struggles of guard Eli Carter, who missed two of the last three games. Carter averaged 11.7 points per game over the season’s first three contests. The Gators were also without Dorian Finney-Smith in the Miami game. Finney-Smith is averaging 10.3 points and five boards per contest.
Of the healthy players, Michael Frazier II leads the squad in scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game. Jon Horford leads the Gators in rebounds at seven per game and is the third player in double-figure scoring at 10.3 points per game.
These struggles should not be unexpected. After losing a bunch of talent following last season, the Gators are still working to get a rhythm. Working together with several new combinations of players is never easy, but they were officially thrown into the fire with this schedule. However, it will pay heavy dividends in the long run.
One positive aspect for Florida this season has been rebounding. The only game in which the Gators have been outrebounded this season is the Miami game, and the Hurricanes only pulled down two more boards than UF did.
Another encouraging point to consider is that the Gators still have Billy Donovan on the sidelines. It is hard to question Donovan’s .718 career winning percentage. In addition, Donovan has lost only 11 games in the past two seasons entering 2014. With the three losses already this season matching all of last season’s total, the success of this squad will rely heavily on how Donovan is able to build that chemistry.
There is no rest for the weary. Florida continues its tough stretch when it travels to Lawrence to battle Kansas on Friday. The schedule after Kansas looks fairly favorable, which will allow Florida to gel more as a unit. The early season competition will also allow the Gators to see some of the best teams in the country and how they match up.
Not only do the early season tournaments provide the fans some excitement, they also allow valuable non-conference battles to happen. These games make a team stronger at the end of the season. How Florida ends up in March depends on how the squad comes together and builds upon these lumps the Gators are taking right now.