Wildcats to face biggest test of season in Florida
Colin Darland / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Junior forward Solomon Hill attempts a layup in the second half of the Arizona Wildcats’ 64-63 road loss to the Colorado Buffaloes. Hill had 10 total points and two blocks in the game.
The games have started to get tougher for the No. 8 Arizona men’s basketball team as it has entered what head coach Sean Miller deemed the second phase of the season.
But the difficulty has been ratcheted up to a whole other level as No. 5 Florida travels to Tucson, Ariz., for the Wildcats’ marquee game of the non-conference season at 8 p.m. Saturday.
At times Arizona has looked like the top-10 team its ranking dictates, but that designation will be put to the test against a Gators squad that has played some of the best basketball in the country.
Florida has outscored its opponents by more than an average of 25 points per game and after coming off of impressive blowouts against Marquette (82-49 win at home) and rival Florida State (72-47 win on the road), the UA will need to improve on its lackluster performance last week at Clemson if it wants to keep pace with the Gators.
Offense versus Defense
The prolific Arizona offense has been slowed in its last two match ups against Southern Miss and Clemson, but it still ranks No. 28 nationally with 79.3 points per game on 48.6 percent shooting. While that’s good, the Florida defense has been even better.
UF sports the second-stingiest defense in the country, allowing just 48.3 points per game while holding opponents to 34.9 percent shooting from the field. This hasn’t come against cupcakes either, as the Gators beat a then-ranked Wisconsin team by 18 points in addition to Marquette and FSU.
Florida also led No. 15 Georgetown at half in the first game of the season, before it was called because of weather conditions on the battleship. While the stats against the Hoyas obviously don’t factor in, Florida only allowed 23 points in the first half of play.
Arizona has enough talent to put points on the scoreboard in bunches, especially with its deadly three-point shooting (40.5 percent on the season). Ball security has been an issue with the Wildcats, though, as they turned the ball over 27 times against Southern Mississippi. That could be an issue against the opportunistic Gators.
UF has the 17th best turnover margin in the nation with its blend of man-to-man and zone defense. The Gators have a knack for converting on the chances, too, averaging 21.3 points per game off turnovers — more than twice that of its opponents (9.9 per game).
With senior Mark Lyons still adjusting to the point guard position, racking up more turnovers than assists this season, it could spell trouble for the UA.
Speaking of the guard position, Saturday’s game will be the first true chance for sophomore Nick Johnson to display his development as the defensive stopper.
Ever since the graduation of guard Kyle Fogg last season, Miller has looked for someone to fill the role as the shutdown defender. Johnson has been designated as the most likely candidate, but Florida’s Kenny Boynton will test the sophomore on a national stage.
Boynton, a 6-foot-2 senior, leads UF with 14.4 points per game and has a natural ability to put the ball in the bucket. But he can be stopped, as Fogg limited Boynton to just nine points in the team’s meeting last season, a 78-72 overtime victory for Florida in Gainesville.
Still, Boynton averaged nearly 16 points per game last season and has averaged more than 14 points per game in all four of his seasons at Florida.
The Gators also have two other talented guards in senior Mike Rosario (11.4 ppg) and junior Scottie Wilbekin (4.4 assists per game).
The Wildcats don’t lack backcourt talent of their own. Lyons willed Arizona to victory at the end of the Clemson game and he racked up a season-high 20 points in the process.
Different Story Down Low
Last season Florida’s Patric Young dominated down low, scoring 25 points on 12-for-15 shooting while snagging 10 rebounds against the undersized Arizona frontcourt. With forward Jesse Perry being replaced with a trio of young freshman, Young should probably dip back down to his career average as a 10 point per game player. Either way, the battle inside will be crucial for Arizona Saturday.
Forward Brandon Ashley has shown the most promise for the Wildcats while Kaleb Tarczewski has consistently produced, but against a complete Florida team, the UA will desperately need an inside presence.
The Wildcats haven’t exactly made their inside game a key part of the offense yet, but the one thing they’ve done well is rebound. Arizona has the 10th best rebounding margin in the nation, grabbing 11.4 boards per game more than their opponents. Florida isn’t far behind, though, sitting there at No. 13 with a 10.7 rebounding advantage.
Considering how stout Florida is defensively, the Wildcats need to control the glass and not allow too many offensive rebounds in order to stay with Florida. But the Gators’ frontcourt isn’t just dangerous inside the paint.
Senior Erik Murphy stretches the court as a sharpshooting big. The forward stands at 6-foot-10 but has a soft touch from outside, connecting on 56 percent of his shots, including 42.9 percent from three. In UF’s only ranked game of the season against Wisconsin, Murphy shot a perfect 10-for-10 and had eight rebounds.
The young Wildcats may struggle defending a player with Murphy’s skill set, and if the game comes down to the wire, senior Solomon Hill might be depended on to shut him down.