Florida Scouting Report: Efficiency, shooters make Gators tough

Because of the Carrier Classic cancellation, and Marquette’s familiarity with Big East opponents, tonight marks perhaps the toughest task the Golden Eagles will face all season when they travel to Gainesville to take on No. 7 Florida.

It’s the first true road game for Buzz Williams’ group, a week and a day after they placed fifth in the Maui Invitational with a win over Southern California. In between, Marquette used a second half 31-3 run to down UMBC 79-46 at home on Monday.

Marquette will have shooting guard Vander Blue back in the lineup tonight after he missed Monday night’s game with a sprained knee. His services will come in handy against a Florida backcourt with plenty of offensive firepower.

But with the losses of guards Bradley Beal (NBA Draft) and Erving Walker (senior), Florida is relying on a strong frontcourt that starts with 6-foot-9 center Patric Young. He’s one of the best defensive big men in the SEC but his effort has been questioned at times. He has played well in 2012, averaging 7.4 rebounds and a whopping 2.4 blocks per game, meaning Davante Gardner will face maybe the stiffest test he’ll see all season.

Erik Murphy, one of the nation’s top inside-out threats, struggled in last year’s Sweet 16 game (3-14 FG) but has been phenomenal early in his senior season. Shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 41 percent from beyond the arc, he’s been as efficient as any Gator and, while he isn’t much as a defender, he’s deadly from 3 and has 11 offensive rebounds in five games, including three in a win over Wisconsin. Jamil Wilson is likely to draw the matchup.

Young and Murphy score, while 6-foot-7 wing Will Yeguete complements with impressive defensive play. The junior averages a team-best 7.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. He has seen some improvement offensively, but his worth tonight will be seen on the other end.

Despite losing Beal and Walker, leading returning scorer Kenny Boynton has lessened those departures’ blow in the backcourt. Florida’s 6-foot-2 combo guard has averaged 16.2 points on 46 percent shooting through five games, and is hitting the boards surprisingly well (5.0). He’s also hitting on 45 percent of his 3’s (13-of-29) and Marquette must limit his looks to have a chance.

Rounding out the starting lineup for the Gators is a familiar face in Mike Rosario. The Rutgers transfer was buried on the depth chart last year but has produced in a larger role this season. He’s the least efficient of the starters and still struggles with turnovers, but has good size and has experience.

Backing up Boynton is 6-foot-2 Scottie Wilbekin, who was suspended the first two games of the season. He was expected to start and, though his calling card is defense, he’s played well offensively (9.7 points, 4.3 assists) since his return.

6-foot-6 junior Casey Prather missed the first four games with a concussion, and is being worked back slowly (he’s even wearing a boxing helmet in practice). How often Billy Donovan will use him tonight is unknown, though he played 13 efficient minutes in a win over Central Florida last Friday.

Donovan loves his shooters, and a pair of freshmen shooters, Michael Frazier II and Braxton Ogbueze, have found themselves in the rotation as well. Frazier has the size (6-foot-4) while Ogbueze is more versatile.

Where the Gators are good

No team in the country made more 3-pointers than Florida last year, and while its 2012 numbers are down the Gators still live and die beyond the arc. They are making 8.3 3-pointers per game and 40 percent of their shots come from there. With six legitimate threats, plus playing at home, Florida is going to look from deep early and often.

The Gators aren’t as deep as they were a year ago, but they still go nine deep with players who can all contribute. Wilbekin and Prather are essentially starters, and the two freshmen have the exact roles Donovan planned for. Starting three seniors and two juniors helps, too, and that group has gone 28-5 in Gainesville the last two seasons.

Generally thought of as an offensive-minded group, the Gators’ defense has been superb this year. Only two of five opponents have scored more than 45 points, and four of five opponents have been more than typical bottom feeders. Young leads the way inside, while Yeguete and Wilbekin work the perimeter.

Where the Gators can be beat

Young is a stellar defender and Murphy has the height, but the Gators don’t have optimal size inside. 6-foot-9 center Cody Larson left the team in the fall and there’s no one — after Young and Murphy — taller than 6-foot-7 (Yeguete). Their defense inside has been good, but it’s an area of weakness on an otherwise great defensive group.

For as good as the Gators are from beyond the arc, they’ve been just average from there defensively. Teams have made 26-of-78 3-pointers, a middle-of-the-pack 33.3 percent average. That could come in handy if Marquette falls behind.

Three keys to the game

1. Don’t press early

Marquette won’t win tonight’s game in the first half, but it could lose it. Wisconsin trailed the Gators 9-0, made a small run but eventually trailed by 12 at intermission. They never recovered. In a tough road environment Marquette needs to look for high-percentage shots, much like it did in last year’s first true road game in Madison.

2. Blue vs. Rosario

A key matchup tonight is Vander Blue vs. Mike Rosario. Florida’s shooting guard is the weak link in the backcourt, and Blue will have his first true test to see how far his jump shot/offensive game has really improved. Marquette likely will need to score in the 70s to have a chance, and an efficient Blue may be the Golden Eagles’ best chance to do that.

3. Foul trouble inside

Davante Gardner is drawing more than six fouls per 40 minutes on opponents, and with a likely matchup with Young coming he’ll need to maintain that average. With the Gators’ thin frontcourt, foul trouble to Young will free up the inside. 3-point shooting will be key, but as always Gardner’s efficiency has the ability to Marquette a long way.

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