If a buffet of mostly cupcakes hasn’t satisfied your appetite for Arizona basketball, then get ready for the main course. A top ten showdown against Florida is on the menu Saturday, and the Wildcats are ready to eat. This is the most anticipated match-up of the season for both teams, and by far the biggest game nationally this week.
During the pregame press conference, Florida coach Billy Donovan lavished the typical praise on his opponent, calling Arizona “very, very talented (and) very, very gifted.” He went on to draw a parallel between the two teams, noting they’re both multi-faceted in how they’re able to defeat foes. He said, “there are a lot of different ways good teams can win games, they can win playing fast, they can win playing slow, they can win by going inside, they can win by knocking down shots, they can win by getting to the free throw line and I think Arizona can do all of those things."
Donovan should know as Florida has been doing those things all season. Each of their wins has been a blowout, with no margin closer than 13 points. In their last outing, the Gators dominated rival Florida State 72-47.
Florida boasts an incredibly veteran lineup, especially considering the nature of modern college basketball. The top six players in the Gator’s rotation are upperclassmen. Nobody is going to come into Mckale Center wide-eyed. Sean Miller noted this, citing Florida’s “experience and performance in big games on the big stage” as the Gators’ main advantage.
Senior guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario are the heart and soul of Florida. Boynton leads the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game, while Rosario is third with 11.4. Expect an all out war when these two square off against Nick Johnson and Mark Lyons.
The Gators are stacked in the post too. Most notable are 6-10 center Erik Murphy and 6-9 forward Patric Young. The duo combines to average 22.2 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. Last season, Young punished an undersized Wildcat team inside and played a leading role in Florida’s victory. He’ll find more resistance in the post against a larger Arizona team this time. On the other side, however, Arizona’s freshmen big men will face what may be their toughest challenge all season.
What’s at stake: As if exacting a measure of revenge against the fifth-ranked Gators for last season’s overtime loss isn’t enough, this game has ramifications beyond a typical early season tilt. The outcome will impact tournament seeding in March, for the Wildcats and the entire Pac-12, more than it should. The Gators are Arizona’s only marquee opponent, and also one of just two currently ranked teams the Wildcats may face this season. If Arizona loses, get used to hearing “but they haven’t beaten anyone” from the national media. As the flagship team of the Pac-12, Arizona plays a prominent role in shaping the perception of the conference. As such, fans from across the Pac-12 should be rooting hard for the Wildcats.
Outlook: Florida has the skills and chemistry to blow a quality opponent out of the gym; just ask Wisconsin, Marquette, and Florida State—three teams the Gators demolished by a collective 76 points. Of course, Florida hasn’t played in Tucson when McKale is rocking. The Wildcats will have a tremendous home court advantage; expect whiteout-level decibels. Furthermore, Arizona has the talent and size to match the Gators. Combine those factors, and Florida should have its hands full.
Still, based on both teams’ performance so far, the Gators have an edge of their own. While Arizona is still adjusting to three freshman contributors and a transfer point guard, Florida has been playing with late-season poise. This is the biggest game of the season for the Gators as well, so expect them to come out fired up.
Arizona and Florida are both undefeated power programs featuring their best teams, respectively, in years. It’s unlikely either side will get rattled, more likely this one could come down to the wire. So put on your red and blue, wear your lucky socks, and get ready to scream your tail off. This battle is as big as they come outside of March. The stakes are high. The players are pumped. The arena will be overflowing. This is the type of atmosphere where leaders step up and legends are born. Who wants it more? It’s almost game time!