Gator defense looks to shut down another foe
Published: Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 9:20 p.m.
Watching Florida play defense this season is comparable to watching a scene with actors at the top of their craft.
Who: Ole Miss at UF
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
On TV: ESPNU
Each detail is taken into account and movements have been choreographed to make opposing teams uncomfortable running offensive sets.
No. 4 Florida takes the nation’s second-ranked scoring defense (allowing just 50.4 points per game) into its Top-20 matchup tonight at the O’Connell Center against No. 16 Ole Miss. But it hasn’t come without hard work from both players and coaches.
“I’m personally surprised a little bit,” said Florida junior forward Will Yeguete, when asked about UF’s defensive success. “But we’re working pretty hard and we’re starting to stay consistent. We work on defense every single day, and I think everybody has improved since last year. I think it’s good to say that you’re a really good defensive team.”
Ole Miss leads the SEC in scoring at an even 80 points per game. But Florida has yet to give up more than 52 points in a conference game this season.
The showdown for first place in the SEC (Florida is 7-0, Ole Miss is 6-1) will likely come down to how well Florida guards throughout the game. Here’s a look at some of the factors that have contributed to UF’s ability to shut down teams during the course of the season:
When point guard Erving Walker graduated, the Gators lost their all-time assists leader and the fourth-leading scorer in school history (1,777). But they also lost a 5-foot-8 guard who opposing offensive teams routinely picked on during the course of last season.
With Scottie Wilbekin taking over for Walker at the point, the Gators replaced a defensive liability with one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Wilbekin learned the value of defense from breaking down tape with his dad, Svend Wilbekin, a former head coach at The Rock School in Gainesville. The junior earned the nickname “the basketball honey badger” from teammates for his quick hands, but hasn’t taken as many chances on steals this season. Instead, Wilbekin’s lateral quickness and instincts have kept opposing teams from beating the Gators off the dribble.
“Scottie came here with a great defensive mentality and mindset,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He was a guy before he ever played a game here, was very, very committed to defense. Very, very important to him. I think he understood the value of playing defense. Now what we’ve tried to do is enhance his commitment on that end of the floor and try to put him in situations where he can utilize something that he takes a lot of pride in.”
With Wilbekin and Kenny Boynton up front, Florida features two of the top perimeter defenders in the SEC. Boynton held Mississippi State top scorer Jalen Steele scoreless last week, and followed that up by holding South Carolina guard Bruce Ellington to seven points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Wilbekin and Boynton’s defensive intensity has carried over to the rest of the starting five. Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario, considered defensive liabilities last season, have both improved and are giving more effort on that end of the floor. And 6-foot-9 center Patric Young has helped off screens on the perimeter while maintaining a physical presence underneath the basket. Young leads the Gators with 35 blocked shots this season.
Off the bench, the 6-foot-7 Yeguete remains tough at the front of the press and capable of guarding multiple positions. Junior forward Casey Prather, when healthy, is another strong perimeter defender.
Donovan said his coaching staff tries to stay “well out in front” of the opponents they face during the course of the season. For example, one of the assistant coaches on Donovan’s staff has been watching Ole Miss play for about a week to 10 days.
On the Thursday morning before a Saturday game, Donovan will watch tape of an opponent and jot down some notes. Then he will meet with the assistant who has scouted the opponent longer. The two will bounce different ideas off one another.
“We sit down and I write down things,” Donovan said. “How I want to guard certain actions. Things that may be a little bit more challenging. Different plays they’re running. How we’re going to guard personnel. How we’re going to guard screening actions.”
Donovan said the Ole Miss scouting report will expand from what the Rebels are doing in the halfcourt to how they play in transition. He’ll identify some key players, such as Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson and senior power forward Murphy Holloway.
“Obviously Henderson is getting a lot of points,” Donovan said. “How are they coming? Where are they coming? Is it on a zone? Is it off screening action? What kind of action is he in? How do we want to guard certain screening actions? Obviously Holloway is a great driver. What plays are they running to put him in those situations? What plays are they running where those guys can really rebound?”
Armed with a breadth of information, Donovan then tries to keep the gameplan simple for his team, breaking it down into two or three “musts” during the course of the game.
“You can get too much information to these guys that they lose sight of what's really important,” Donovan said. “In the South Carolina game, what was really important was transition defense, rebounding and guarding the 3-point line."
Florida assistant coach Matt McCall put together the initial scouting report against South Carolina. The Gators held South Carolina to just 36 points, the fewest points for an SEC opponent against UF in the shot-clock era.
“He did a really good job, because we knew the plays, the motions and everything,” Yeguete said. “We knew how to guard, and I think he prepared us really well for this game.”
Getting college players to buy into playing defense isn’t easy. Offense creates headlines. Henderson leads the SEC in scoring and receives more highlight airtime in one week than the Gators do in an entire month.
“It’s hard to do it,” Donovan said. “One of the things I have to say is, 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 schoolyard to run me over and take charges.’
“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.”
But Florida players have found pleasure making opposing offenses look silly during the course of the season. And it’s hard to argue with the results. The Gators take a nine-game winning streak into their game tonight with Ole Miss, UF’s longest since winning 10 in a row to close the 2006-07 national title season.
“Seeing that we're able to do it just makes us want to do it even more,” Young said. “Just to be able to completely shut out a team and their main scorer because we have guys that can just defend every position. It's just a great feeling."