Gators face test with pesky MTSU defense
Published: Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 10:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 7:32 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan has faced a variety of challenges early in the 2013-14 season.
Who: No. 16 Florida Gators (3-1) vs. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (4-0)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area TV: Sun Sports
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
But tonight could be the veteran coach's biggest test yet, trying to navigate through a 40-minute game without a true point guard.
With freshman Kasey Hill out with a high ankle sprain and returning senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin still suspended, just getting the ball upcourt could be a challenge when the Gators face Middle Tennessee State at the O'Connell Center. Donovan is concerned about MTSU's changing defenses, which will include some full-court pressure.
“We have enough ball-handling to initiate our offense,” Donovan said. “I think we'll be OK. I think if we are dealing with any kind of pressure, hopefully utilize it as a chance to open up the floor and play fast. But certainly we'll have to take care of the basketball and make good decisions.”
That will be important facing Middle Tennessee State's 1-3-1 defense, which flustered the Gators at times last year when the two teams met in Tampa. The Gators needed a flurry of shots from former guard Kenny Boynton late to pull away for a 66-45 win.
“They pressed us a lot,” Florida senior forward Will Yeguete said. “They had size and played really hard. They were playing 1-3-1 and that kind of bothered us a little bit.”
Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II is slated to start at point guard for Hill tonight. But Donovan said sophomore guard DeVon Walker and even sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith could step in and play some stretches at the point if need. Finney-Smith and Walker both played point guard in high school.
“I'm pretty confident in my ball-handling, so I think if coach needs me to play point, I'll do it,” Finney-Smith sid. “We've just got to find a way to win without our point guards.”
Frazier adds a shooting element to the position (45.8 percent from 3-point range, 11 of 24) that Hill lacked, but isn't nearly the ball-handler or as explosive in transition. The 6-foot-4 guard from Tampa also isn't 100 percent back from mononucleosis.
Donovan said it will be important for Frazier to make good decisions with the ball.
“Most of the time he's going to be initiating offense with a pass or pass to somebody and then cutting and moving, and then he's right back off the ball,” Donovan said. “So I think that he's got to understand what we've got to flow in and out of.”
Donovan said Hill has remained upbeat despite the diagnosis. Hill spent two hours rehabbing his injured ankle Monday night after the Southern game, and eight more hours rehabbing on Tuesday. The prognosis for Hill remains that he'll sit out a month, though trainers were encouraged because the swelling around Hill's ankle has significantly reduced.
Because Hill's game relies so much on stop-and-start speed and quickness, Donovan said the Gators intend to make sure the star point is 100 percent before his eventual return.
“That's where you get into situations where the injury gets prolonged and nagging, he's never quite back about 80 percent, because once you start playing, it's really hard to get it fully recovered,” Donovan said. “We're going to err on the side of caution in terms of throwing him back out there until he feels like he can explode and do things.”
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G DeVon Walker 6-6 So. 3.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 13.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr. 19.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Jr. 8.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg
MTSU PROBABLE STARTERS
G Jaqawn Raymond 6-4 RSo. 8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg
G Tweety Knight 6-1 Sr. 10.0 ppg, 5.8 apg
F Kerry Hammonds Sr. 6-5 16.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg
F Shawn Jones Sr. 6-8 16.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg
F Neiko Hunter 6-7 Sr. 9.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Notes: Florida takes a 18-game home winning streak into tonight's game against Middle Tennessee State. … Florida knocked off the Blue Raiders 66-45 last season in Tampa. … Sophomore guard DeVon Walker is coming off a career-high 10-point game against Southern. … Florida sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith is averaging 12 points and 8.5 rebounds per game since returning from suspension. The 6-foot-8 Finney Smith has made a big impact on the boards. Before Finney-Smith returned, the Gators were minus-5 in rebounding margin. Since, Florida is plus-18 in rebounding margin. … Florida has outscored its last two opponents 44-7 off turnovers. … Middle Tennessee State returns two starters from a team that finished 28-6 and reached the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season. … MTSU assistant coach Monte Towe was an assistant coach at Florida from 1980-89 and former head coach at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. Towe still has season tickets to Florida games that he gives away to friends and family. … With Hill out, Florida only has seven healthy scholarship players available tonight. Expect to see plenty of walk-on swingman Jacob Kurtz, who is averaging 4.0 points and 4.8 rebounds off the bench.
Donovan also refused to set a timetable on the return of Wilbekin, who has been suspended since the beginning of the season for an unspecified violation of team rules. Wilbekin has practiced with the Gators since the beginning of October, so his adjustment period shouldn't be as long once the suspension is lifted.
“He knows what he has to do and if he stays on course, then he will have a chance to get back on our team,” Donovan said. “He's done a very, very good job, more so than anything else, I really admire and appreciate how he's changed for the better in a lot of ways.”