Almost exactly a year ago today, the Gators were a team in turmoil.
On Dec. 1, 2010, Florida lost to UCF, 57-54. After the game, coach Billy Donovan was upset with UF’s 14 turnovers, compared to just 12 assists.
“We have a bunch of guys on the floor that make nobody better,” he said.
Once the 2010-11 team got chemistry and ball movement straightened out, Florida’s run to the Elite Eight became possible.
The 2011-12 version of the Gators face a similar challenge. Although a soft schedule has masked some of the concern, Florida had 11 assists and 16 turnovers in a loss to Ohio State earlier this season.
Donovan said his team has gotten better at moving the ball and making decisions since then, but tonight’s game against Syracuse will be the toughest test to date.
The Orange has forced turnovers on 30.5 percent of its opponents’ possessions, the second-best mark in the nation. While limiting turnovers will be key, the biggest indicator of where Florida is offensively will be shot selection.
Syracuse is known for its signature 2-3 zone, where its five lanky athletes pack into the middle of the floor, taking away inside scoring but leaving holes on the perimeter for 3-point shooters.
On paper this is a perfect matchup for a Florida team that takes 43.2 percent of its field-goal attempts from beyond the arc and hits 42.9 percent of those tries.
“I wish every team would play 2-3 zone,” said junior guard Mike Rosario, who has taken 35 of his 51 shots from 3-point range. “I love to play against 2-3 zone so you can shoot threes.”
It’s obvious that the three-ball is a big part of the Gators’ offense, and Donovan himself said he’s fine with the team shooting from distance.
The issue is how Florida gets those three-point shots, which brings us back to the same problem that hindered UF early last year and doomed them this season against Ohio State.
Florida is at its best when defenses have to worry about the Gators moving the ball and scoring on the interior. Whether that means getting Patric Young involved or perimeter players driving to the basket, the Gators need to establish a scoring presence — or any type of presence at all, really — inside the arc.
When Syracuse gives teams fits defensively, it’s because it forces them into the same vice that limited Florida’s potential last season. Teams see five big, orange jerseys roaming the interior, pass it around the perimeter for 30 seconds and then settle for a contested 23-footer.
Since the Gators were prone to one-man possessions and lackadaisical ball movement last year — and have shown spells of the same early this season — this type of defense is designed to induce their most common faults.
Taking threes is fine, but the shots need to be generated, not forced.
“I’m not opposed at all to taking threes, but you really, from possession by possession, have got to take not necessarily what’s given to you, but what you create,” Donovan said. “A lot of it is making good decisions, and this will be a great test for us.”
If Florida can avoid offensive funks and display crisp ball movement and an ability to penetrate the lane consistently, the Gators will beat the Orange and prove they have the type of offense they need to make a deep run in the Tournament.
If not, the season is by no means in trouble, but Florida will learn that it still has plenty of work left to do.