With the college basketball season only two weeks old, it is not receiving a lot of national attention thus far. However, many say that the week of Thanksgiving is the “real” start to the hoops season. As early-season tournaments move deeper into their brackets, the match-ups are getting better. The Maui Invitational had several top teams in it, while the CBE Classic and NIT Season Tip-Off had plenty of attractive match-ups. The best non-conference game of the season, though, could be in a non-bracket format. What better way to kick off the “Game of the Week” articles than a match-up between two of the best teams in the country in Kansas and Florida?
Florida is “the hunted” this season. After starting out hot last season, the Gators faltered somewhat during February, but bounced back to win both the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament. They have carried a lot of that momentum over to this season so far. UF is 5-0, winning their games by an average of almost 40 points per game, although their best win is over Samford. They are scoring an average of 87 points per game, and giving up less than 50 per contest. Ken Pomeroy has the Gators as the 5th-most efficient offensive team in the country, and the 64th-most efficient defensive team.
Kansas was one of the three teams heading into the season that were expected to be the cream of the crop this year. However, the Jayhawks stand at only 2-1, with wins over Northern Arizona and Towson, but a surprising upset loss against Oral Roberts. To make matters worse, the loss to ORU was at home. In other words, Kansas has not truly lived up the hype yet. Their wins are by an average of 30 points per game, and they are scoring 83 a contest, and giving up just over 65. According to Ken Pomeroy, Kansas has the 148th-most efficient offense and the 38th-most efficient defense.
Florida is the preseason favorite to win it all by most people. After heading into last season as not much more than a bubble team, the Gators enter this season with a bull’s-eye on their backs after last year’s National Championship. However, they return all five starters and their top two bench players, leading some people to believe this team is capable of repeating.
It all starts in the frontcourt, where the Gators have one of the best frontlines in recent history. All three starters are potential lottery picks and are also ranked in the top five at their respective positions. Moreover, they will all contend for All-America honors by the end of the year. Center Joakim Noah broke out during the NCAA Tournament, and has been tabbed by several publications and outlets as the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. He is an extremely difficult match-up due to his size, speed, and athleticism. Noah is an outstanding shot-blocker with a non-stop motor who is a dominant inside force and will only get better. Al Horford goes unnoticed at times lining up next to the passionate Noah. However, he is a terrific rebounder and a very good defender. He has a developing offensive game, and is one of he most efficient scorers in the country. Small forward Corey Brewer is one of the most versatile players in the country and is a very good defender. He is athletic and is adept at getting into the lane and finishing. With an improving perimeter game, he will become more of a match-up problem this season. Off the bench, senior Chris Richard provides excellent low-post scoring and rebounding. Two freshmen, small forward Dan Werner and big man Marreese Speights, will contribute immediately backing up the starters.
The backcourt is also one of the best in the country. Point guard Taurean Green improved immensely as the season went on, and developed into one of the best at his position in the country. He can score and pass very well, and is also a good long-range shooter and defender. Two-guard Lee Humphrey is an outstanding three-point shooter who is becoming one of the most clutch gunners in all of college basketball after hitting several important three-pointers to help the Gators in March. He is also an underrated defender. Walter Hodge is a solid combo guard who is quick and talented. He provides depth off the bench for the Gators. Freshman Brandon Powell is a good shooter and defender.
Kansas is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the Big 12 heading into the season. Moreover, it is a young team with room to improve over the course of the year. Like the Gators, they are a legit Final Four threat.
They are led by an excellent perimeter group. Brandon Rush, the preseason Player of the Year in the Big 12 and a bonafide All-America candidate, is the go-to-guy. He has the ability to be a star. He can create his own shot and is a very good scorer. However, he was too unselfish last season and deferred to his teammates too often. Fellow sophomore Mario Chalmers could be on the verge of a breakout season. He developed steadily as the year went on and was voted the Big 12 Tournament's most outstanding player. He is a good scorer who led the Big 12 in steals. Russell Robinson might be the best defender in the conference and is the leader for the young Jayhawks. He is an underrated point guard on a national level and can do a little bit of everything. Coming off the bench is Sherron Collins, a McDonald's All-American. He is a tough combo guard who will make an immediate impact. His athleticism and quickness will help right away.
Up front, another sophomore, Julian Wright, leads the way. He is one of the more versatile players in the Big 12. The athletic Wright can play nearly every position on the floor. Furthermore, he is an outstanding passer and can finish in the lane. Freshman Darrell Arthur and junior Darnell Jackson will be the other two players in the paint. Arthur can play anywhere on the frontline and will make an immediate impact. He is very athletic and loves to run the floor. He has been one of the best freshmen in the country so far this season. Jackson is a banger who is a solid contributor in terms of points and rebounds. Sasha Kaun and Darnell would have added depth to the KU frontcourt, but Kaun is injured, and Giles was dismissed.
This should be a great match-up. If Kansas had not lost to Oral Roberts, this would be a #1 vs. #2 battle in some circles. Both teams have very good balance, with the ability to beat a team from the perimeter as well as down low. Kansas likes to get out in the open-court and score in transition and force turnovers. Florida has the personnel to play in multiple settings, able to get out and score in fast-break opportunities but even more dangerous in the half-court. The key to the game will be Florida’s ability to handle the Kansas pressure and the Jayhawks’ ability to stop the Gators in the half-court. Taurean Green averaged 3.2 turnovers per game last season, but has only 4 turnovers all season so far. Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers need to disrupt Green so he can’t set up the Florida offense with ease. If Kansas does not force turnovers and get points in transition, the Gators are too big for them in a half-court setting. Darrell Arthur and Julian Wright are athletic, versatile forwards, but they aren’t strong enough to defend Al Horford and Joakim Noah, not to mention Chris Richard off the bench. Those two and banger Darnell Jackson is going to need to keep Horford and Noah off the glass so Florida does not dominate the paint. Additionally, keep an eye on the match-up on the wing. Florida’s Corey Brewer and Kansas’ Brandon Rush are two of the best small forwards in the country. Brewer may be able to hold Rush in check with his length and athleticism on the defensive end. If that happens, Kansas is going to be in trouble.
In the end, Florida is too big on the interior and too balanced at both ends of the court for the Jayhawks. They won’t be able to handle the Gators’ bigs down low and will struggle to get points in the paint on the offensive end. Unless Wright and Arthur force Horford and Noah out of the paint, Kansas could have trouble. Look for the Gators to keep their undefeated streak going, while the Jayhawks drop their second game.
Prediction: Florida 76, Kansas 69