Defense leads way as Gators reach Elite Eight
PHOENIX – When Florida coach Billy Donovan addressed his team for the first time after sophomore forward Will Yeguete broke his foot in late February, he began by issuing the Gators a challenge.
First, Donovan listed Yeguete’s best qualities on a whiteboard: “Energy, defense, hard work, rebounding and good attitude.”
Then he asked his players if any of them were incapable of bringing those things to the team.
“He told us with Will out, each guy needed to bring those things a little bit more,” center Patric Young said. “He said, straight up, ‘This guy is probably done for the season. There are no excuses. This guy can’t play, so everybody needs to pick it up.’ “
Florida’s subsequent transformation into a formidable defensive team was more gradual than instantaneous, but the Gators undeniably have become a stingier team in the absence of their best defender. They proved it again Thursday night with a 68-58 victory over third-seeded Marquette in the West Regional, advancing to a second consecutive Elite Eight by stifling a potent Golden Eagles offense.
In NCAA tournament victories over Virginia, Norfolk State and Marquette, seventh-seeded Florida has yet to allow an opponent to eclipse 60 points or shoot 40 percent from the field. That’s significant progress for a Gators team that earned a reputation for lackadaisical defense this season after surrendering the fourth highest field-goal percentage and the fifth-most points per possession in the SEC this season.
While the absence of Yeguete leaves Florida with only Young and Erik Murphy as true frontcourt players in the rotation, wings Bradley Beal, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin have grown more comfortable defending and boxing out power forwards.
The Gators also have learned to use their quickness to their advantage, pressuring the ball more and forcing more turnovers.
“It’s ironic we’re better defensively now because Will’s our best defender, but Coach told us we’re a man down and everybody has to step up,” Florida point guard Erving Walker said. “We know we have to defend this time of year. You’re not going to shoot well every night, but the defense keeps you in it.”
Florida’s newfound defensive emphasis has helped the Gators finally emerge as the Final Four contender they were supposed to be this season.
With Young, Walker and Kenny Boynton returning from last season’s Elite Eight team, Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario eligible and the elite freshman Beal set to debut, Florida began the season as a consensus top-10 team. But the Gators slid all the way to a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament as a result of erratic play throughout the season, which included losing to Rutgers and Georgia and being swept by Tennessee.
One reason Florida’s focus was so sharp against Marquette was because the Golden Eagles provided extra motivation. Big East player of the year Jae Crowder said this week that the Gators “are a great offensive team. They lack a few things defensively.”
“We definitely knew they said that, and we just let our play do the talking,” Wilbekin said.
Florida’s defensive game plan to stop Marquette was simple enough: Get back in transition, crowd the paint and don’t let stars Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom get easy buckets. The Gators harassed Crowder and Johnson-Odom into matching 5-of-15 shooting nights, committing help defenders to both players whenever they made a move toward the paint.
The combination of Florida’s defense and a combined 43 points from Beal, Walker and Boynton enabled the Gators to keep their lead at six or more points for almost the entire second half. As Florida thwarted comeback bid after comeback bid from Marquette, the Golden Eagles’ frustration became evident in the way they rushed shots and argued over calls that went against them.
The human personification of that frustration was coach Buzz Williams, who began the week in search of his first Final Four. Williams sweated through his shirt by midway through the second half, did defensive slides along the sideline periodically during the last 10 minutes and alternated between water and spoonfuls of honey to soothe his scream-weary throat.
“I thought Florida was great,” Williams said afterward. “If you don’t make shots, the easiest thing to say is, well, we just missed shots that we typically take. That wasn’t what happened. They were really good. They were outstanding. Credit goes to their defensive game plan.”
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