Billy Donovan is famous for directing high-speed, high-scoring offenses, but this year he is stitching together one of the best defenses in program history.
No. 4 Florida is among the top eight in the country in fewest points allowed, opponent field-goal percentage and rebounding margin. The Gators are looking to keep a third straight team under 50 points when they host South Carolina on Wednesday (8 p.m., SEC Network) at the O’Connell Center.
“I think it’s just being committed to wanting to do it, and just saying that we have the capabilities at all positions to hold teams to less than 50 points,” center Patric Young said. “We’ve done it 10 times this year and seeing that we’re able to do it makes us want to do it even more — just completely shut out a team and their main scorer.”
Young is the final obstacle between any driving player and the rim, but there are several barriers in front of him. Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin are arguably the best two perimeter defenders in the SEC.
Those starters are just the beginning. Off the bench, Will Yeguete can defend multiple positions, causes constant problems in the full-court press and rebounds at a rate of 11.5 per 40 minutes. Casey Prather also has the size and quickness to handle nearly any assignment.
Those players have been vital to Florida (16-2, 6-0 in the SEC) holding opponents to 51.2 points per game this season, which leads the conference by a wide margin and trails only Virginia (50.0) and Stephen F. Austin (51.1) nationally. Teams facing the Gators this season have scored 17.1 points per game fewer than they have averaged against the rest of their schedule.
The Division I record for scoring defense in the shot-clock era, beginning in 1985, belongs to the 1992 Princeton Tigers at 48.2 points per game. Virginia and Florida’s current averages would be the best among teams from the major conferences.
Donovan did not necessarily construct this defense through careful planning and recruiting. He targeted talented prospects that had the right mindset and helped shape them into an imposing unit.
“I don’t really go in saying, ‘I want to build our team for defense,’ ” he said. “When you get a guy that’s competitive and a guy that wants to win at both ends of the floor, that’s important.”
None of his eight regulars are projected as automatic first-round NBA draft picks, though Young is close. However, five in that group are known as above-average collegiate defenders. Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy did not have that reputation coming into this season, but Donovan credited both with making significant improvements. Michael Frazier, a freshman swing player, also proved he can be reliable defensively.
Continuity helps, too. Seven of the eight Gators who play the bulk of the minutes have been in the program at least three years. They have familiarity and cohesion that usually cannot be developed on a team that is perpetually bringing in one-and-done stars.
“That’s 80 percent of it,” Boynton said. “The guys on the floor have been in tough games.”
The Gators still are sprinting and scoring on offense and their 73.7 points per game is fifth in the SEC, but they seem obsessed with their defensive numbers.
The key stat by which they judge success is the opposition’s points per possession. Florida considers it a failure if it gives up 1.0 or more, Boynton said, though that has not happened much. The Gators’ .805 points allowed per possession leads all major-conference teams, according to teamrankings.com.
As good as they have been, they see opportunities to get better.
“I think it’s possible,” Boynton said. “If we get defensive stops, the offense is gonna come for us. If we do a great job every possession on defense, anything is possible.”
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.