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December 14, 2012

Silverstein: Florida off to a promising start



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It's early, but...

That's the way columns like these normally begin, ones where a writer takes a seven-game sample size and extrapolates that for the duration of a season in order to tell you, the reader, how far a team will go and what it will have accomplished four months from the publishing date.

The problem is that there are far too many examples of a team playing hot out of the gate and hitting a major cold spell in the middle of a season only to fall out of postseason contention or fail to live up to expectations created in the first place because of its quick start.

Therein lays the problem with me telling you that Florida looks like a legitimate Final Four team. As often as declarations made in December hold water in March are occasions in which the opposite is true.

That being said, here is why the former may at the very least be more applicable than the latter in this particular case.

The Gators are not just out to their first 7-0 start since the 2009-10 season while playing better defense and defeating opponents by double digits. UF has absolutely dominated every single opponent it has faced, three of which should have been especially competitive games.

Florida's defense is on another level right now. Head coach Billy Donovan's team has only allowed two of seven opponents to score more than 50 points - then-No. 22 Wisconsin (56) and Central Florida (66). Even in those respective games, UF registered 18-point and 13-point victories.

The defense-breeds-offense mentality is one that Donovan has preached throughout his entire career, even when his teams were playing "Billy Ball." The Gators' success on that end of the court can be attributed not only to the emphasis Donovan placed on it during the offseason but also how adamant he was that Florida improve in that area throughout the 2011-12 campaign.

UF is now 32-1 since the beginning of last season when holding opponents under 71 points in a game.

The Gators are now ranked second nationally in scoring defense, allowing opponents to post just 48.3 points per game, and are also ranked third in scoring margin, winning games by an average of 25.3 points.

Florida's defense is not a fluke and the game results are not the result of a weak non-conference slate.

UF upended a UW team that has struggled this year but is also well-known as arguably the best road team in the Big 10. The Gators also routed Marquette by a greater margin than it did the Badgers, a team that the Golden Eagles bested by 10 points last week.

The argument against Florida being dominant right now is that it's not road tested. Yet in its sole true road game so far this season, UF trounced a strong, defensive-minded FSU team by 25 points in a contest that is usually ultra-competitive but was never anywhere near close.

What has been most impressive about the Gators is not just the dominant victories or stifling defense but rather the fact that Florida has accomplished all of this with a lineup that has been in constant flux since the season began.

Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (suspension) missed the first two games of the regular season. Junior guard/forward Casey Prather (concussion) was absent for the first four. Junior center Patric Young was pushed out of the starting lineup in one game for attitude in practice, and senior F Erik Murphy played two games while under the weather, once due to the flu and a second time because of a hip pointer.

None of these hiccups have stopped, let alone slowed down, the Gators.

UF has cruised in the early going and is now at full strength with its players bought in and everyone on the same page just in time for its toughest test of the young season.

No. 5 Florida is set to face No. 8 Arizona on Saturday evening in Tucson, AZ in a game that marks its first outside the state this season and furthest non-conference trip since the 2008-09 campaign.

The Gators may claim internally that they are not buying into the media's hype, which is still just simmering at the surface, but you can bet that this team is dying to make a statement.

Florida is not going to go undefeated this season; win or lose, this Arizona game is going to tell everyone watching plenty about this team and its makeup.

The real question is if the Gator boys will stay hot, like they are right now, or cool off over the next handful of games.

That's what happened to Florida in 2009-10, the last time it started 7-0. UF's next four games included a dominant victory over Jacksonville before a loss to Syracuse and a pair of embarrassing defeats to Richmond and South Alabama in a four-day span.

The Gators end this season's non-conference slate with Arizona, Southeastern Louisiana, Kansas State, Air Force and Yale, making being undefeated or having one loss by the time the league schedule begins a legitimate possibility.

The last time Florida got out of its early non-conference schedule with fewer than two losses, the Gators concluded their season with a cumulative 19-0 record against non-conference opponents, which included six-straight victories in the 2006 NCAA Tournament and the program's first-ever national title.

But, it's early...


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