Florida defense looks to shut down Bama

Florida's Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and the rest of the Gators' SEC-leading defense will try to keep Alabama's Trevor Releford at bay.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 7:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 7:07 p.m.

Exasperated following a season-opening 77-69 win against North Florida, Florida coach Billy Donovan said the Gators had “light years” to go to match their defensive effectiveness from last season.


Saturday's game

Who: No. 3 Florida Gators (20-2, 9-0 SEC) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (9-13, 3-6 SEC)
When: Noon
Where: O'Connell Center
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM

But entering today's game against Alabama at the O'Connell Center, the argument could be made that No. 3 Florida is playing defense as well as last season, if not better.

“The gap has closed,” Donovan said. “The numbers our last few days have been much, much better.”

Florida ranks first in the SEC and sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 57.4 points per game. During their current 14-game winning streak, the Gators have held nine teams under 60 points, four teams under 50 points and two teams under 40 points.

Donovan said he's noticed the most growth in how the Gators have defended the 3-point line compared to earlier in the season.

“Our younger guys, DeVon Walker, (Michael) Frazier, Kasey Hill, I think they've gotten better,” Donovan said. “They've improved. But I still think it's a work in progress, but I do see signs of us getting better.”

Last season, Florida ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (54.4 points per game) and ninth in field goal percentage defense (.384). But that was before NCAA rules changes and emphasis this past offseason designed to boost scoring. The Gators have adapted well by continuing to play sound fundamental defense without fouling. Florida's 15.9 fouls against per game rank first in the SEC and are tied for 10th in the nation.

The Gators rely on rotation and help defense to clog up lanes to the basket. The help defense is suited for the talents and chemistry of UF's four senior starters — center Patric Young, forward Will Yeguete, forward Casey Prather and point guard Scottie Wilbekin.

“We practice it every day,” Prather said. “But it definitely requires a lot of energy, a lot of mental toughness to be in the right spot, know how to help the helper. So I feel like as long as we keep moving in a positive direction, that we'll do great defensively.”

Donovan said UF's veterans set the tone on defense, but that playing help defense requires constant tinkering during the course of the season.

“It's a constant evolution of constantly trying to get better,” Donovan said. “Like anything else, you can do your job well, and one guy breaks down and the other four guys are going to suffer from that. Certainly our younger guys need to get more consistent. Generally our most consistent guys are our older guys. “

It helps that Young, Prather, Yeguete and Wilbekin take pride in their defensive performance and are rangy, athletic defenders.

“When you have players that can actually make plays on defense, you can gamble a little more,” Yeguete said. “We've got Scottie, who is a really good guard and can get off the screens. You have Pat, who is a really good interior defender. That allows us to be comfortable on the floor and on the court, and we play with a little more freedom on defense. It's been working. Hopefully we keep on going.”

Donovan said he feels like his veteran players understand the value of expending extra effort on defense. On Tuesday night, the Gators started 1 of 11 from 3-point range against Missouri but only trailed 28-25 because they kept the Tigers' hot-shooting guards in check.

“This is one of our better teams in terms of coachability, buying in, wanting to do it,” said Donovan, who also referenced last year's team and the 2006-07 national title teams. “Our guys see that if you play good defense, it takes some of the pressure off you offensively.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.


G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 12.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 12.4 ppg, 3.6 apg

F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 15.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg

F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg

C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg


G Retin Obasohan 6-1 RSo. 11.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg

G Trevor Releford 6-0 Sr. 18.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg

G Rodney Cooper 6-6 Jr. 8.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg

F Shannon Hale 6-8 Fr. 7.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg

C Carl Engstrom 7-1 Jr. 2.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg

Notes: Florida concludes its three-game homestand today in its second meeting of the season against Alabama. The Gators beat the Crimson Tide 68-62 on Jan. 23 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. … Florida has won 14 straight overall and at 9-0 in the SEC is just one of 11 teams unbeaten in conference play, joining Cincinnati (American Athletic), Saint Louis (Atlantic 10), Syracuse (ACC), Delaware (CAA), Harvard (Ivy), Wichita State (Missouri Valley), San Diego State (Mountain West), American (Patriot), Stephen F. Austin (Southland) and Georgia State (Sun Belt). … Florida has won a school-record 28 straight games at the O'Connell Center. … Florida freshman point guard Kasey Hill is averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 assists off the bench, while sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith is averaging 10 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds off the bench. … Alabama, coached by former UF assistant Anthony Grant, has lost five of its last six games. … Alabama sophomore starting guard Retin Obasohan, who did not play in the first meeting between the two schools with a hip injury, is expected to be healthy for today's matchup. … Donovan is 13-2 in his career against his former assistants and 7-0 against Grant. … Veteran college basketball analyst Dick Vitale will call the game for ESPN.

Three things to watch

1. Better shooting start

Florida has struggled in each of its last two games shooting from the perimeter in the first half. The Gators went 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half against Texas A&M and 1 of 11 against Missouri. Donovan said he felt the Gators had good looks early in both games, but still needed to do a better job working the ball inside-out early. “Half of our shots in the first half were 3s,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Not that I mind that because (Missouri was) playing zone, but there was nothing at the basket and then it came back out because of help. We were all perimeter-oriented.” Alabama played zone in its first meeting against Florida, and expect coach Anthony Grant to throw more zone defenses at the Gators today.

2. Backboard battle

With teams playing zone against Florida, it's opened up more opportunities for the Gators to get offensive rebounds. Florida outrebounded Alabama 42-39 in the first meeting between the two schools and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds. Dorian Finney-Smith (11 rebounds) and Will Yeguete (11 rebounds) both had big days on the glass in the first meeting with Alabama and could again today.

3. Second act

Freshman forward Chris Walker made a splash in his UF debut with four points, two blocked shots and two rebounds in just seven minutes off the bench against Missouri. What can he do for an encore? The 6-foot-10 Walker appears to have good chemistry with fellow freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who fed Walker on a pair of alley-oop dunks for his four points. Hill and Walker have been playing together in AAU since ninth grade. “They've known each other a long time,” Donovan said. “I see some of that stuff in practice. I'm not sure Scottie has got that same kind of connectivity with Chris so to speak. But I don't think that's something that's hard to pick up. I'm not going to look at it as, geez, Chris is out there, we have to make sure Kasey is out there with him. I still think they can play without each other and they can play with each other.”

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