Just six games into the season, Florida’s brand-new Gators already have a chance to accomplish something even last season’s national champions couldn’t do: beat Florida State.
The rivals face off in Gainesville on Friday as 25th-ranked Florida looks to move to 6-0 and validate its fast start with a win over its toughest opponent yet.
With two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, the Gators have outscored opponents by more than 33 points per game. Sophomore Marreese Speights had 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 102-51 win over North Florida on Tuesday, while freshman Nick Calathes added 14 points, six assists and six rebounds.
“If we keep passing and playing together, we’re going to do something special,” Calathes said. “Everyone can score on our team; we have so many offensive threats.”
Despite losing their entire 2006-07 starting five, three players who were among the top nine picks in the NBA draft and 84 percent of their offense, the Gators are shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 47.0 percent from 3-point range. But coach Billy Donovan still isn’t sold on his young group, which has played five games on its home court against inferior competition.
“As we start to play against teams that are more physical and bigger and more athletic, I think we’ll find out a little bit more,” Donovan said. “We haven’t been on the road with these guys yet. We haven’t played an SEC game yet. We haven’t played a top-10 or top-20 team yet.”
Florida doesn’t face a team that’s currently ranked until a Feb. 5 game at No. 7 Tennessee, and doesn’t even play a true road game until visiting Ohio State on Dec. 22, but a rivalry game should serve as a good test.
Florida State (4-2) beat Florida 70-66 in Tallahassee last season, one of just five teams to knock off the Gators, who repeated as national champions.
Four of the Seminoles’ starters in that game are back, but the one who graduated leaves a huge void. All-American forward Al Thornton scored 28 points against Florida last season and was chosen 14th overall in the NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Senior guard Isaiah Swann, who had 11 points against Florida last season, has led Florida State’s offense this season with 18.0 points per game. Uche Echefu had a career-high 18 on Tuesday as the Seminoles beat Georgia State 78-48 to avoid a third straight loss.
Playing in the Glenn Wilkes Classic, the Seminoles lost to Cleveland State 69-66 in overtime last Saturday, then fell 68-67 to South Florida on Sunday.
They’ve won two of three against the Gators, but have lost six straight in Gainesville since 1992.
Floridians have had this weekend circled on the calendar for a while, and the basketball game is just an appetizer. Florida and Florida State play each other in football in Gainesville on Saturday.
The rivals also squared off in both sports in Gainesville on Thanksgiving weekend in 2005, with the Gators winning both games.