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One And One

Florida has a case as nation's best team heading into showdown at Kentucky

Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young, Florida Gators Seniors Scottie Wilbekin (left) and Patric Young have helped the Gators chomp down on opponents en route to 16 straight wins. (Phil Sandlin/AP)

Florida believes it is one of the best college basketball teams in the nation. It is. The Gators are 22-2, undefeated in the SEC and have not lost in more than two months. They have succeeded with asphyxiating defense -- a necessary trait for national title contenders -- and they have overcome injuries and off-court issues while notching some impressive wins. They have won 16 straight games and are confident they can beat anyone. This is also true. But are they the best team in the country?

“I think when we step on the court, we believe we’re the best team in the country, but everyone else has their own opinions,” forward Will Yeguete said. “We understand that. No matter what people say on the outside of the court, when you step on the court, that’s when you prove it.”

The outcome of Florida’s SEC showdown with No. 14 Kentucky on Saturday night will offer further proof one way or the other. A win at Rupp Arena would not only put the third-ranked Gators three games up in the conference standings with six games remaining, it would also be their seventh victory this season over a top 50 team, as many as No. 1 Syracuse has and only one fewer than No. 2 Arizona. Florida is 6-2 against top 50 teams, Syracuse is 7-0 and Arizona is 8-1. Florida (No. 4) comes in right behind both Syracuse (No. 2) and Arizona (No. 3) in the RPI and the Gators already have a win over the team ranked No. 1, Kansas. (If you're curious, Wichita State’s numbers don’t surpass any of those, except for that giant zero in the loss column, around which the entirety of the Shockers’ case as the nation's best team revolves.)

Florida is one of six teams with an offense and defense both in the top 25 of kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings (Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova and Louisville are the others). And should the Gators continue to roll, they will have done so against a schedule projected to rank 42nd-toughest in the country. Of the teams in the discussion, only Arizona’s would be more rigorous.

None of this would stop the arguments against labeling Florida as the best team, period. Undoubtedly, such a pronouncement would produce heavy amounts of localized ire in upstate New York and the Southwest, and maybe lighter dustings in portions of Kansas and Michigan. Debate can fume on all sides.

Still, Florida has not lost a game all year at full strength, and has been without key players because of injuries (Kasey Hill, Casey Prather) suspensions (Dorian Finney-Smith, Chris Walker) or both (Scottie Wilbekin). Walker, a 6-foot-10, five-star freshman, just became eligible this month, meaning that while other elite teams have lost key pieces for good (Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, for example) or are battling health issues (see Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Michigan State’s entire roster) the Gators are very good and enhancing that goodness as March approaches.

“I thought we’ve made some really good strides defensively,” coach Billy Donovan said last week. “I think we’ve progressed and gotten better. I do think we can continually get better on offense, in terms of utilizing and taking advantage of our personnel. For the most part, I’ve been pleased with our guys’ effort and their energy – I think we’ve played pretty hard most of the year. We’ve had a couple games where I was a little disappointed in maybe our intensity or our focus, but when you go through a long season you’re going to have games like that. But I think, overall, we still can get better.”

If the Gators’ run traces to one source, though, it is that unremitting defense. Florida doesn’t abide slippage. If a mistake or misstep occurs in practice, practice stops to correct it. After finishing a weightlifting session Thursday morning and eyeing a workout later, Yeguete fully expected Donovan to roll film of all the errors and shortcomings he unearthed from a 67-58 win at Tennessee on Tuesday. “We don’t take anything for granted,” Yeguete said.

This year, the Gators are seventh nationally in adjusted defense. Last year, they were fourth. The year before, they were 90th. What changed?

“First of all, us four seniors started playing more last year,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said with a laugh, referring to himself, Yeguete, Patric Young and Casey Prather. “Obviously [Erving Walker] was the starting point guard the year before that, and he was more offensive-minded. I came into the starting lineup as more defensive-minded, and Will was getting more playing time and is a great defensive player. The younger guys coming in, they kind of were forced to buy into it. We were the upperclassmen and leaders and that’s what we prided ourselves on. The standard was raised last year. Then once [Donovan] saw what we could do, he started to hold us to a higher standard and it became the team’s identity.”

The core principle is plain: The Gators aim to take away the opposition’s top two options. If Florida can diagnose those preferences and attack them in the half-court, then teams end up scrambling and probing deep into the shot clock and often don’t find the shot they want.

Ideally, the entire operation funnels opposing offense's into taking tough two-point attempts. The spine of the Gators' defense is trust and aggression, and that much has built steadily over time with a quartet of veterans leading the way. “Be ready to help one another,” Yeguete said. “If you have to help someone, trust somebody else has your back behind you, so just go for it. Just be aggressive and solid defensively. We’re not trying to make any hero plays.”

The Gators were already long, athletic and dedicated, and now they have Walker, who presumably gets at least fractionally better with each outing. Even if his production isn’t impactful -- he's played just 16 minutes in three games, scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds -- his presence is. Knowing there is big-man depth available allows Young and Yeguete and other frontline players to play more assured, not fearing the possibility of foul trouble. “Obviously we did a lot without him,” Wilbekin said of Walker. “Any additions, especially additions like him -- that usually doesn’t happen.”

With Walker on board, Florida has plugged a hole and is as weakness-free as any team in the country. They are deep (four players average double-figure scoring), balanced (eight average at least 14 minutes per game) and experienced (four seniors in the starting lineup). The defense is limiting opponents to 39.3 percent from the floor, 21st-best in the country. The free throw shooting is a concern (66.3 percent as a team), yet it’s somewhat offset by solid 46.1 percent shooting from the floor, second-best in the SEC.

Even in their two defeats the Gators have little to apologize for. With just eight scholarship players available, they lost by six at Wisconsin in a game that wasn't decided until the final 10 seconds. Then they lost by one at Connecticut on a buzzer-beating jumper. Both were true road games against teams that were ranked at the time, and the most recent came on Dec. 2.

Still those defeats, combined with Syracuse's spotless 24-0 record, make it difficult to deny that the Orange are the nation's best team. That might sound like hair-splitting given the many variables involved with any two teams, but that's the margin between elite clubs.

“We’re not a great team yet,” Yeguete said. “We’re striving for greatness. But we’re a not great team yet.”

The Gators have a stronger claim on greatness than they think. A win Saturday will make that claim -- and them -- even greater.

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