Gators show they can get defensive


UF freshmen Al Horford, left, and Taurean Green thwart the progress of Georgia's Corey Gibbs on Tuesday night.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2005 at 1:27 a.m.
Was it great defense, or just the fact Florida faced an offensively challenged team?
The answer was probably a bit of both. In the wake of Florida's 70-47 win over a Georgia team that dressed seven walk-ons, the Gators showed for the first time this season they could grind out a game without shooting for a high percentage.
Florida's 15 first-half points allowed was an all-time low in the Billy Donovan era, but it came against a Georgia team that was missing leading scorer Levi Stukes (16.3 ppg), who sat out the game for violating a team rule.
Florida won its first game of the season when scoring less than 80 points and its first game when shooting less than 45 percent from the floor. Florida shot 43 percent, to Georgia's 33 percent.
"It's encouraging, because we know we have room to improve," said junior guard Matt Walsh, who played in his second game back from a high ankle sprain. "We know that we're not all the way where we want to be yet defensively."
Defense has been the focus for the Gators since the season began with September practices for their Bahamas trip that was canceled because of Hurricane Charley. Florida hired assistant coach Larry Shyatt during the offseason, in part because of his reputation as a solid defensive coach in head coaching stints at Clemson and Wyoming.
Statistically, Florida has shown signs of improvement on defense. The Gators rank sixth in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense (63.6 per game), fourth in field goal percentage defense (.410), second in defensive rebounding (30.6), third in blocked shots (4.78) and fourth in steals (8.38).
Last year, Florida finished the season 10th in the SEC in steals, 11th in blocked shots and eighth in rebounding defense.
"Probably the most satisfying aspect is defensively we've rebounded and blocked out consistently," Shyatt said. "At this point in the season you can start to identify trends, and in 12 of our 16 games we've out-rebounded our opponents."
The freshman class has helped in the turnaround. Al Horford gives Florida a second rebounder inside and ranks eighth in the conference in blocked shots at 1.36 per game. Joakim Noah is another shot-blocking threat off the bench.
Corey Brewer has a team-high 32 steals. And although he is prone to being caught out of position at times, he also has shown a penchant for making game-altering defensive plays because of his quickness and athletic ability.
"We've improved in a lot of different areas, but we're still in a process where we're playing five rookies," Shyatt said. "The inexperience can lead to a lack of focus at times, and you're always striving for consistency.
"The most impressive thing to me against Georgia wasn't the 15 points we allowed in the first half, it was that when we got up 15, 20 points in the second half, we maintained a solid focus in terms of staying physical and understood what needed to be done.
"That to me shows improvement." Early in the season, Florida was in a process of finding a defensive identity. The loss of starting center Adrian Moss - a solid interior defender - to back spasms hurt. Donovan adjusted the focus to defending the 3-point line after Miami and Louisville burned the Gators by going a combined 17-for-41 from beyond the arc in a pair of non-conference losses.
Florida has improved from ninth in the conference in 3-point percentage in mid-December to sixth, and held Georgia to 4-of-16 from 3-point range Tuesday night.
"That leaves you a little naked inside, but it was an adjustment that we needed to make," Shyatt said.
Florida's defense will get another test Saturday against a South Carolina team that's improved in the other direction. The Gamecocks were one of the worst shooting teams in the conference last season, but now rank fourth in the league in field goal percentage.
The true test to Florida's defense will materialize in the coming weeks. After South Carolina, Florida will play four of its next five games against the top seven scoring offenses in the conference. The stretch begins next Tuesday against Mississippi State, which ranks seventh (74.6) in scoring and features reigning scoring leader Lawrence Roberts, who is second in the league at 18.8 points per game.
Alabama (second, 79.9) comes to the O'Connell Center Feb. 5, followed by games at Kentucky (sixth, 75.5) and LSU (fourth, 76.5).
Florida coaches are aware the team remains susceptible to defensive lapses, as it did in allowing Tennessee to shoot 52 percent from the floor in the second half of that overtime conference loss.
"You want it all," Shyatt said. "I would like to see us take a few more charges. Generally speaking, we are better than we were a few months ago."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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