Gators Send a Message

Gators Send a Message
Dec 23, 2006, 08:28 pm
So just how overrated were the defending national champs? Some were ready to claim quite a bit, after the discouraging loss to Kansas and an inexplicable hiccup at Florida State.

But today’s inspirational blowout victory over Ohio State told a much, much different story. It says that these Gators aren’t going anywhere - that Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah were sick, and that maybe the key returnees from last season’s championship run simply needed to learn how to play with the giant bull’s eye that appeared on their backs the minute Brewer, Noah, and Al Horford put millions on the line for a chance to repeat.

There are a million ways to justify the final score and even the outcome of this one. Ohio State’s season essentially began again with the arrival of Oden, especially in terms of schematics and team chemistry; the Buckeyes played well in front of a hostile crowd in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels were largely content to sit back and let the shooters shoot – Florida went into attack mode on the perimeter, disrupting ball movement and allowing very few open looks; Oden is still very clearly bothered by the hand, and isn’t even close to being in optimal shape just yet.

But no matter what a Buckeye apologist might say, this game was about the champs letting everybody know they aren’t going anywhere without a fight. This was about Corey Brewer’s triumphant return from mono, and Al Horford not just getting on the court for handful of non-descript minutes, but successfully keeping a stiff-legged Oden from consistently gaining position deep in the paint, dominating the glass, and doing a great job of forcing the freshman behemoth to come out and guard him on the perimeter.

Ohio State’s talent was on full display for most of the game, and this barnburner appeared on the verge of swinging in either direction several times throughout the first half. Florida came out and pressured the ball, and Thad Matta’s spot up shooters never really got going. Ron Lewis and Daequan Cook were largely invisible, and being defended by the clearly rejuvenated Brewer had a large part to do with this.

But at the same time, Oden’s presence made it much more difficult for the OSU guards to make Florida pay for extending their defense. In the past, it would have been Lewis, Cook, David Lighty and Mike Conley slashing to the basket at will. In this game, Horford and Noah were waiting for them at the rim, instead of chasing a smaller player the opposite direction on the other side of the court.

Oden certainly was incapable of taking the defense to task, as Horford did an outstanding job of keeping his center of gravity lower than Oden’s. The Ohio State guards rarely attempted to throw the ball over the top when Horford was fronting the 7-footer, and Oden rarely got low enough to hold his ground on the block. When he did receive the ball, the lingering affects of the wrist injury became readily obvious. He wasn’t strong with the ball, and offered little in terms of a back to the basket repertoire while so limited with his shooting hand.

Meanwhile, the Gators clicked offensively in a big game for the first time all season. It was really Brewer who made the difference, artfully picking his spots within the offense and creating for himself on several slick scoring moves. Taurean Green got it going in the second half, breaking the Buckeye spirit with a barrage of contested 3-pointers and acrobatic drives to the basket. Even the normally limited Horford was able to step away from the basket and knock down a pair of 15-foot jumpers.

If there was a silver lining for Thad Matta, it had to be the stellar play of freshman point guard Mike Conley. The only Buckeye guard appearing comfortable operating under Florida’s stifling pressure, Conley was able to consistently slice his way to the basket, creating offense on kick-outs or finishing at the rim for himself. The freshman is a relentless defender, physically mature, and only now starting to assert himself as a scorer. It might not be too long before Mike Conley’s name starts popping up in those ever-controversial “best point guard in the nation” debates. If you are one of those that scoffs at any claim lacking statistical backing, consider that the always at full speed Conley currently sports a 3-1 Ast/TO ratio, is averaging nearly 3 steals per game, and is currently shooting 53% from the floor.

So where does this leave the two teams on the national landscape?

When it comes to Florida, I have a hard time placing them anywhere but at #1. This is probably the most telling individual win for any team thus far, and the pair of losses can certainly be explained away with the health issues of Brewer and Noah. Florida was number one in the preseason and after today’s win, I don’t think any team has done enough to deny them the top spot.

Ohio State is a bit more difficult. It is clear that integrating Oden is going to be a process, and might not be as constructive in the short term as many originally thought. Nonetheless, this was a game that Ohio State appeared on the verge of taking over before Oden picked up that huge 3rd foul. If the Buckeyes continue to slide in early conference play, this loss definitely becomes important – especially considering that Matta’s group really doesn’t have a big time win yet.

But I really don’t expect that to happen. It still seems that Ohio State is likely to slowly pick up steam throughout conference play and find themselves in the championship mix come March. For now I will continue to label the young Buckeyes a solid Top 10 squad, backing off those (perhaps rushed) Top 3-5 expectations they had headed into today. We will see how Oden, Conley and company respond at Illinois and at Wisconsin in early January.

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