Florida Clearly Ready for this SEC TournamentPosted by David Changas on March 15th, 2013
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Friday afternoon’s game between Florida and LSU at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
In the past, the Florida Gators have been accused of not emphasizing the importance of the SEC Tournament. The Gators have largely sleep-walked through it since a run of three straight championships from 2005 to 2007 – the last two of those teams, of course, went on two win the national championship as well. Since that time, they have advanced past the quarterfinals only twice, even when they’ve been a superior team versus their early-round opponents. If Friday’s dismantling of LSU is any indication, this year will be different. Coach Billy Donovan’s team, which appeared to be a contender for a #1- or #2-seed just a few weeks ago, limped down the stretch in losing four of its last five on the road, including a meltdown in the final eight minutes in the regular season finale at Kentucky. It is clear Donovan wants this team to right the ship heading into the NCAA Tournament, and the team’s focus in the win over LSU was evident. The Gators were on from the perimeter – usually a sign that things are going well for them – hitting 11-of-20 from three-point range. Senior forward Erik Murphy was particularly hot, making 5-of-7 from three point range on his way to a game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds.
Part of the reason Florida struggled down the stretch of the regular season was the absence of junior forward Will Yeguete, who missed six games because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. He returned in a limited role in the Gators’ third-to-last game against Alabama, but continues to work himself into game shape. Friday’s 21 minutes were the most he has played since January, and the energy he brings to his team is evident. At 6’7″, he is the Gators’ most efficient rebounder and best defender. Yeguete is able to guard in the post and the perimeter, and there is no question that he is a key to Florida’s success from here.
Anyone who follows Florida closely knows that Kenny Boynton has been an enigma who often tortures Donovan with poor shot selection. On Friday, though he scored only two points and was 1-of-7 from the field, he dished out a game-high seven assists and set the table for his teammates. “I really thought Boynton played well. When shots aren’t falling, there are things he can contribute other than scoring. I think Kenny took that to heart today,” Donovan said. Obviously, Florida would have been fine with whatever it got from Boynton – the team’s leading scorer coming into the game (12.5 PPG) – but they were able to dominate LSU with virtually no scoring from him. Instead, they got solid performances from Murphy, junior guard Scottie Wilbekin (16 points) and junior center Patric Young (10 points, six rebounds).
For all the talk about Yeguete and Boynton and the other Gators, on Friday, the real key to their success was the play of Murphy, who was named first-team all-SEC earlier in the week. Murphy’s three-point shooting prowess has been on display throughout the year, and the Gators are simply tough to beat when he shoots the ball as well as he did on Friday. With Young playing well inside, Murphy, who is 6’10”, creates a match-up nightmare for opponents. The undersized Tigers had no answer to him on Friday, as they were forced to guard him with 6’5″ Shavon Coleman. “He’s a great player,” said LSU guard Charles Carmouche. “He’s versatile. If you have a big guarding him, he’ll take you outside. If you have a guard guarding him, he’ll post you up.”
Florida will now await the winner of the Tennessee-Alabama game in one of Saturday’s semifinals. They lost two-and-a-half weeks ago in Knoxville and then trailed much of their next game against Alabama in Gainesville before pulling out a 12-point win. But Donovan would like to think that his club is more the one that tore through the first half of its SEC schedule and less the one that scuffled down the stretch. If Friday’s performance and the health of the team is any indication, he may be right, and the Gators may again become a popular pick to make a deep run in March.