THERE IS NO shame in losing to Florida, especially this Gators team.
Those in the announced crowd of 12,781 at Colonial Life Arena got a first-hand look at why Florida is the nation’s No. 1-ranked college basketball team, and why these Gators could be clipping the nets after the Final Four in Dallas.
So, too, did a South Carolina team still attempting to ride the high of defeating 17th-ranked Kentucky on the same court three days earlier. The Gamecocks also got to see why Florida has a 22-game winning streak and is a win against Kentucky on Saturday from completing the first 18-0 SEC regular season.
Understand, there is little flare and flash about this Florida team. You are not going to see many SportsCenter Top 10 plays. What you are going to see a is a team of veteran players that wears its opponents out with attacking defense and relentless offense.
“You get nothing on either side of the floor when you play them,” USC coach Frank Martin said after Florida blitzed his club in the second half of a 72-46 victory. “They make no mistakes defensively. They don’t give you easy points off their offense. They take good shots. Credit them. They’re real good. They’re hard to deal with.”
On the offensive end of the court, Florida throws many weapons at its foes. On any night, one of its five double-figure scorers can step up and bury a team. On Tuesday, the assassin was guard Michael Frazier, who sank 11 of 18 attempts from beyond the 3-point line, and finished with 37 points.
Frazier’s marksmanship was the best shooting display at Colonial Life Arena since Lee Humphrey’s 7-for-8 shooting from 3-point range in Florida’s 84-50 win against USC in 2007.
For Florida, it does not matter where the offense comes from because the Gators play well enough on defense night-in and night-out to keep them in any game. Few would argue that Florida plays the best defense in the country. Unfortunately, USC found that out Tuesday.
The Gators’ defense was solid in the first half, when they held a 28-26 advantage. It was suffocating in the second half. At one point, USC went nearly 10 minutes without scoring a field goal. The Gamecocks made five of 22 field-goal attempts after halftime.
Perhaps the most telling of the boxscore numbers were Florida’s 17 steals.
“They’re connected. They play with tremendous effort, tremendous resolve,” Martin said. “They kind of bait you to dribble the ball in certain areas, and as soon as you dribble it, they just attack you like piranhas.”
Florida also has one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders in senior guard Scottie Wilbekin. He had the primary assignment of taking USC sharp-shooter Brenton Williams out of the game, but he also got help throughout from others.
“They did a good job of communicating as a team to where I was at all times,” said Williams, who made a pair of 3-pointers, each of which was contested, and finished with 7 points.
Florida’s slim halftime lead was the result of allowing USC to gain a 21-12 rebounding advantage. Like all great teams, Florida corrected the error after halftime and outrebounded USC 26-13.
The Gators also pay attention to detail. Afterward, when asked about Florida completing a perfect conference regular season, forward Patric Young first corrected the boxscore handed to him. It had incorrectly shorted Florida two conference wins.
Young, a three-time academic All-American, then eloquently talked about his Florida team.
“Just keeping our eyes on the prize, to do something great and be a part of history has motivated us internally,” Young said. “Coaches have pushed us from Day 1, laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we’re doing today.
“We all bought into it. We all love each other. We all push each other to compete every single day in practice. We do everything it takes to become great. Just the fact we’re seeing the fruit from that and having the opportunity to go 18-0 is a blessing. Hopefully, we can keep our heads on straight and humble and get it done.”
Remaining humble and continuing to work toward greatness is what has made this a special Florida team, according to its coach.
“Sometimes winning can be intoxicating, and you get a full sense of who you are,” Billy Donovan said. “They’ve done a pretty good job of staying relatively grounded through all this stuff. That’s the thing that’s made them really good.
“The biggest thing with players is that most of the time they handle adversity better because they go through it and want to get back in the gym and work. A lot of times players don’t handle success very well. These guys have done a pretty good job, at least up to this point in time, of handling things well in terms of moving to the next challenge.”
That next challenge for Florida is advancing to the Final Four and, perhaps, winning the national championship. No one who watched the Gators play Tuesday would be surprised if they capture their third national championship come April.