West Virginia-Florida Preview
Florida's hot shooting took a major step back in SEC play this week, and a decline might continue against a non-conference opponent which has rediscovered its strong perimeter defense.
Outside shooting may again be an issue for the Gators when ninth-ranked West Virginia visits Gainesville on Saturday for the opening game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
While Florida (13-7) is two games off the SEC lead, the Mountaineers (17-3) share first place in the Big 12 due greatly to stifling defense. They allow a Big 12-low 63.6 points per game and force an average of 19.8 turnovers - best in the nation.
Their latest victory was far from perfect, beating Kansas State 70-55 on Tuesday despite committing 18 turnovers and shooting 42.6 percent while missing 13 free throws. The difference was a defense that held the Wildcats to 35.1 percent shooting, including one make on 18 3-point attempts.
"I thought we had more bounce in our step again," coach Bob Huggins said. "We've been kind of like a half a step behind everything. We had that bounce that is kind of critical for the way we play."
After allowing Kansas to make 10 of 20 3s earlier this month, the Mountaineers' last four opponents have made just 25.0 percent - including the nation's best 3-point shooting team in top-ranked Oklahoma.
Kansas State's 5.6 percent showing is the second-worst by a major conference team this season behind only California's 0 for 12 at Oregon earlier this month. It improved West Virginia's 3-point defense to 26.8 percent, second in the nation to only Akron's 26.1.
Florida (13-7) is 12th in the SEC in 3-point shooting at 31.8 percent, its exact number from Tuesday when it made 7 of 22 in a 60-59 loss at Vanderbilt. The Gators followed their highest-scoring game in SEC play - last weekend's 95-63 win over Auburn - with their lowest.
They had made at least nine 3-pointers in each of their previous four games. But after shooting 50.3 percent while scoring at least 80 points in three straight wins, the Gators shot a season-low 32.9 percent against the Commodores.
"We're not a team that has a lot of success driving the lane, that makes a lot of one-on-one plays and finishes at the rim," coach Michael White said.
Florida is 0-10 against ranked teams, including four losses this season, since a 79-68 win over No. 20 UCLA in the 2014 NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. The Gators last beat a top-10 team when they defeated No. 10 Baylor in overtime in a 2011 Sweet 16 game.
These two teams haven't met since 2003, when Florida took a 4-3 lead in the all-time series with a 70-57 win. The latest matchup likely won't feature a key player on each side.
West Virginia announced Thursday that senior forward Jonathan Holton has been suspended for the game for a violation of team rules. Huggins had said after Tuesday's win that Holton was "getting his bounce back." He's averaged 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in the last three games.
Florida will likely be without forward Justin Leon, a junior college transfer who has averaged 8.6 points while starting each SEC game. Leon hasn't been cleared to practice after suffering a concussion early in Tuesday's loss, and White called his status a ''probable absence.''
If Leon doesn't play, some of his minutes might go to fellow junior DeVon Walker - who is 0 for 18 with two points in the last 11 games. Kasey Hill, though, could take Leon's place in the starting lineup after totaling 30 points off the bench in Florida's last two games.