Every True Son is probably not so happy-hearted right now, but the skies above us are so blue- us meaning Chris Walker, Billy Donovan and Gator Nation, that is.
Throughout the night, Missouri guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson were unstoppable on offense (especially from three point land), and Mizzou threw out a zone defense that the Gators could never figure out. Those two factors kept the Tigers in the game for quite a while- certainly longer than the fans, who were already restless at the prospect of seeing highly touted freshman Chris Walker for the first time, anticipated.
But when it mattered most, a familiar face got hot, and it all ended with another Gator celebration on the feared floor in Gainesville- the 28th such celebration in as many games- and the boys from the Show-Me state were shown, in quite a frustrating fashion, exactly why this Florida team is #3 in the nation. In short, because they always find a way to win, regardless of how bad they may play.
I knew Florida was in trouble for this game the minute I heard Chris Walker would be cleared to play against Missouri. This is a solid Tigers team, one that’s chasing a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and on the other hand, here’s Florida, beating every team they face, and always by double figures at home since they beat Kansas by six in December. The popular thought process was, “We’re winning easily without Chris Walker, so we’re gonna completely dominate with him, right? Basic math. Good production without him plus the production he’ll bring equals more total production.”
Because at least at first, Florida was not ready to play. They appeared to be too busy imagining having Walker on the court, and knowing that this would become a reality within minutes, so they slogged through the first half offensively. With an ugly combination of floating lazy passes that would get picked off, setting illegal screens, stepping out of bounds, or simply dropping the few good passes that were thrown on the perimeter, the Gators were lucky Missouri didn’t blow them out of the gym. Predictably, the results were horrendous- 25 points in the first half, which is the lowest point total for a first half in Gainesville since last March against Vanderbilt- and if you can believe it, the quality of play on offense was actually worse than that number indicates. Without arguably the best defense in the country, Missouri would have been up by about 20 at halftime.
But there were two main bright spots for Florida’s offense in the opening half. On two different occasions, Kasey Hill lobbed a sky ball (hence Chris Walker’s nickname of Sky Walker), and Chris Walker climbed the ladder, grabbed the floating ball, and slammed it down with so much force it made the Florida Gulf Coast kids from last year look like a bunch of five year old girls playing around on Fisher-Prices. Each one brought the O’Dome into a frenzy. Unfortunately, after the second one (which tied the game with four seconds to go in the half), the Gators were so distracted by how good it felt to get their newly reinstated comrade such a sweet moment that they forgot to reset their defense, and Jabari Brown nailed a wide open three to put Missouri up three at halftime.
That’s where Missouri’s fun ended.
The only way that I can see a team beating Florida is to go into a zone defense and take away the inside game, which Missouri did, and keep rotating out to the perimeter when the ball goes to a guy who can shoot threes to stave off the three point attempts, which Missouri did not do. After awhile, Missouri got gassed, and were simply too worn out to keep chasing the ball around the perimeter… including when it went to Michael Frazier, perhaps the most dead-eye shooter to wear the orange and blue since Lee Humphrey. Their failure to do so directly led to their demise.
First, Scottie Wilbekin (who finished with the quietest 19 points I’ve ever seen) hit a wide open three to knot the game at 30. Then, Frazier hit a three to tie the game at 35. He was wide open because the Mizzou defense had just spent its energy collapsing on Scottie Wilbekin, who had the ball last. You’d think Missouri would learn from that and spread their focus to account for all five Gator players… including Frazier. They didn’t and it happened again, this time to give Florida a three point lead.
Barely a minute later, Frazier connected on his third three of the second half to extend the Gator lead to 51-45. Missouri’s Wes Clark responded with a three of his own to cut the lead in half, but Florida sensed Missouri’s fatigue and set Frazier up with yet another attempt from three, which of course he buried. That fourth one crippled the Tigers, as it kicked off an 8-0 run that put Florida up 59-48 with 3:21 to go… and with the way the Gators’ defense plays, that basically means game over.
From there, it evolved into a free throw shooting game that Florida won. Florida wound up well over that 70% bar I set for them a few weeks ago, so there’s no reason to complain about it.
Anyway, it’s late, we’re all tired, and national signing day is tomorrow, so for now, just take the win at face value. I’m not getting into any ridiculous comparisons with the 06-07 teams, because this team is so differently built that it’s not worth it. Just know that like those teams, this one is 20-2, and appear to be in great shape for the NCAA Tournament if they keep this up.
As I noted in the title: the sky’s the limit for this club. And the sky appears to be perfectly clear at the moment.