In preparation for Wake Forest's tilt versus Florida in the Orange Bowl Classic, we got a chance to talk to some experts about the Gators. Our thanks to Andy Hutchins, the site writer and editor for Alligator Army, for his help.
Florida is 6-4 with no quality wins and four losses to quality opponents (Miami, Georgetown, UNC, Kansas). According to KenPom, a win over No. 123 Wake Forest would be the Gators best win of the season. How good is this youthful Gators team?
A lot better than its record would indicate. Florida's been missing Eli Carter in all of its losses, didn't have Dorian Finney-Smith against Miami, played three games in three days in the Bahamas with what amounted to a seven-man rotation, and collapsed in the second half at Kansas after smoking the Jayhawks in the first. Since that 1-2 stint at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Finney-Smith has returned to nearly full health after suffering a wrist fracture in Florida's opener, Kasey Hill has settled in as a sophomore, Devin Robinson has come on to give Florida additional wing scoring, and Chris Walker has shown flashes of being a force in the paint. Those three wins against Yale, Texas Southern, and Jacksonville aren't wins over great teams (Yale could make the NCAA Tournament from pretty much any league other than the Ivy League, and while Texas Southern might make it, too, being the best SWAC team still makes a team bad), but they came by a minimum of 25 points, and an average of 36. The Gator Boys are hot.
Last year’s senior-laden Gators lost only three games all of last season. With only one starter returning in junior Michael Frazier, Florida has already dropped four games. What are the fans’ expectations for this season?
I think fans thought Florida would have a chance to play deep into March again, making the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight, with an outside shot at the Final Four. And what we've seen so far suggests that Florida has a gear that could get it to the Final Four, but finds it harder to shift into that gear, or maintain it, than last year's steely, wizened Gators did. The pendulum's swung from being irrationally excited about this team to being irrationally down on it, but I still think a Sweet Sixteen is pretty likely, and an Elite Eight very possible. As for competing in the SEC, well, Kentucky is really damn good
Florida is full of highly-touted recruits but bereft of experience. Many fans know of Michael Frazier, Florida’s sharpshooter and leading scorer. Who else do the Demon Deacons need to look out for?
Hill and fellow jet-quick point guard Chris Chiozza really make this team go on offense. Hill is a blur with the ball in hand, and makes up for subpar shooting with good decision-making and superb vision; he's got 28 assists to five turnovers in Florida's last four games, and only played 21 minutes, dishing three assists, while suffering from a stomach flu against Jacksonville. Chiozza's a thief, ranked sixth nationally in Steal Percentage, and has all the moxie one would want from a freshman point guard. Get into situations in which he can rip the ball out, and it's curtains for opposing offenses.
Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Many pinpointed last year as the year that Florida would return to the championship podium. While the Gators are young, they are full of blue chip prospects. When do you believe Florida realistically returns to the NCAA Championship discussion?
Do you need to make the NCAA Tournament final to be in the discussion? Florida's been among the nation's three best teams in KenPom in each of the last two years, and was pretty clearly among the nation's best teams by the end of 2012, especially given how well the Gators played Kentucky in the 2012 SEC Tournament. I firmly believe last year's Gators were the nation's best team, so that was a missed opportunity.
Florida's not likely to win a title this year, because Kentucky and Duke exist, and Kentucky being in the SEC lowers Florida's ceiling a fair bit, but if the core of this team returns in 2015-16, even if Chris Walker bolts for the NBA, that group of Gators could be very, very scary.
Note: These last two questions were posed before news of Wilbekin's NCAA suspension broke on Saturday.
Last year Florida was led by SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin. On Saturday, Billy Donovan will face off against Gainesville-native and Wake Forest freshman Mitchell Wilbekin. How will you react when you see Wilbekin on an opponent’s jersey? And what will you remember about Scottie five years from now?
It's funny: I remember, five years ago, talking about Scottie Wilbekin, the early-enrolling 17-year-old who was going to be Florida's second point guard because all the Gators had at point was Erving Walker, and I remember the early buzz back then was that his little brother was going to be better than him. Mitchell Wilbekin tore his ACL between then and now, and has had to rebuild his game, but I still think that he's going to be a very good player in his older brother's mode, and it will be bittersweet to see him do so at Wake.
As for Scottie memories: No single Gator has been more clutch over the course of a season than Wilbekin was in 2013-14. I called him Scottie Big Shot, and called his end-of-half and end-of-game possessions Scottie Time, and he came through over and over — no joke, I got goosebumps writing this just now. And his redemption, which took him from a lost kid whom Billy Donovan told to transfer to the senior leader of one of the greatest teams in Florida Gators history, is something that I'm proud I got to watch.
Scottie was great. I'm jealous that you'll probably get to watch Mitchell become great, too, and a little sad that we won't see him against us on this Saturday
So finally, what are your thoughts on the game versus Wake Forest? Who wins and what's the final score?
Florida's a better team and playing in the state of Florida, where the Gators don't really lose, so that alone makes me think Florida gets a win. But the Gators are playing a Wake team without Wilbekin, Cornelius Hudson, and Rondale Watson, too, and that team is going to struggle mightily to score on Florida, especially given how Wake has struggled withthem. Florida likes to grind it out, while Danny Manning likes to run, so this might be a lower-scoring game than the Demon Deacons have been accustomed to, but I'll say Florida wins, 72-60.
Thanks again Andy for your help!