With football season in the rear-view mirror and a two-month nonconference slate out of the way, Florida basketball is finally ready to step into the spotlight.
On Sunday, UF survived an early scare and overcame Erik Murphy’s absence in a drubbing of Yale. Florida carries a 10-2 record into Southeastern Conference play, which tips off with a matchup against Georgia on Wednesday.
While the conference slate won’t be a cakewalk, the Gators should be disappointed with anything less than a title.
In reality, the SEC is a three-team league. Only Florida, Kentucky and Missouri have a legitimate shot at the championship.
As is the case throughout college basketball this season, each of the contenders has legitimate flaws.
Kentucky, as always, is young and talented, but not nearly as talented as last year’s group. Nerlens Noel is Worse Anthony Davis and Alex Poythress is Worse Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Judging 9-4 Kentucky’s merit is nearly impossible this early in the season. The majority of UK’s key players are still adjusting to the college game, and point guard Ryan Harrow has only been a key piece of the rotation for half of the year after dealing with illness and family issues in the early going. The Wildcats will only get better as the season rolls on, but their potential is capped compared to last year.
SEC newcomer Missouri is also still learning. After establishing a reputation as a guard-heavy bunch known for giving opponents 40 minutes of hell, the Tigers have switched up their style. Michael Dixon was expected to be one of the best guards in the SEC, but he was kicked off the team on Nov. 29 after multiple allegations of sexual assault came to light.
But even without Dixon playing a minute this season, the Tigers started strong at 11-2. The arrival of UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers’ return from an ACL injury give Missouri a presence in the frontcourt.
Florida plays Missouri and Kentucky twice each, meaning the league will likely be won or lost head-to-head. That could be good news for the Gators, who match up favorably with both contenders.
After rotating three lead guards last year, Missouri has only one, albeit a damn good one in Phil Pressey. Whether UK settles on the sophomore Harrow or freshman Archie Goodwin, UF’s press matches up well. Florida should be able to wear down Pressey and force youthful UK into mistakes.
UF will have more good matchups when Kentucky and Missouri get into their half-court offense. Both UF’s pesky zone — more common with 5-foot-6 Erving Walker graduating out of the rotation — and collapsing man-to-man should do well against Missouri and Kentucky offenses that rarely rely on jump shooting.
On the other side of the ball, neither team presses well enough or often enough to give UF any real issues.
As long as Murphy’s rib injury isn’t serious and the Gators keep their balance on offense and intensity on defense, an SEC title is well within reach.
Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].