Syracuse and Florida each lost their leading scorer from last season to the pros, but each team is 8-0 regardless.
The seventh-ranked Orange will leave the state of New York for the first time in 2009-10 to meet the No. 10 Gators on Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum in the SEC/Big East Invitational.
Syracuse and Florida both featured high-scoring sophomore point guards a season ago, but neither of those players is back. Former Orange star Jonny Flynn was taken sixth overall by Minnesota in the NBA draft, while Gators guard Nick Calathes also turned pro and is playing in Greece.
The clubs haven’t missed a beat, with Syracuse trying for its second straight 9-0 start and Florida off to its best start since going 17-0 en route to the 2005 NCAA title. Each has beaten a Top-10 opponent, with the Orange defeating then-No. 6 North Carolina on Nov. 20 and the Gators edging then-No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 27.
“Florida is very good,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I think they’re really a much better team than they were last year. They were right on the edge of the NCAA and they’re a much different team.”
The Orange beat the Gators 89-83 last season in Kansas City in the semifinals of the CBE Classic. Calathes had 19 points and Flynn had 18 to nearly cancel each other, but the key to Syracuse’s victory may have been Andy Rautins’ five 3-pointers off the bench.
Now a starter, Rautins is shooting 51.1 percent on 3-pointers. The Orange have replaced Flynn’s scoring with Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson, who is averaging a team-high 17.0 points.
Five Syracuse players are averaging at least nine.
“It is going to be key for us to keep playing unselfish,” said Rautins, who needs one 3-pointer to tie Eric Devendorf for third all-time at Syracuse with 208. “We know that Florida is a physical, athletic team and they are going to get up and down the floor. We have to get back in transition and rebound the ball well.”
The Gators allowed Syracuse to shoot 51.7 percent in last season’s matchup, but seem to have a better defense in 2009-10. Florida’s opponents are shooting 38.7 percent.
“Our No. 1 priority this year is going to be defense,” Gators guard Erving Walker said. “We know you cannot shoot the ball well every night and we want to stay in games with defense. Of course, everybody wants to shoot the ball well, and when it’s going in, that feels nice.”
Florida also has a newcomer as its leading scorer in Kenny Boynton, a freshman averaging 13.9 points despite a 37.8 field-goal percentage. Boynton had 15 points last Friday in an 85-67 win at Jacksonville.
The Gators are 15-7 against teams from the Big East under coach Billy Donovan, including a 73-58 win over Rutgers on Nov. 28. They’ll be buoyed by the partisan crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum, where they are 4-2 all-time.
Syracuse traditionally plays most of its pre-Big East games close to campus - with six at home and two at Madison Square Garden this season - but feels ready for this road trip.
“We know that they are a good team,” sophomore forward Kris Joseph said. “We’re going to go down to Florida and just play hard and concentrate on defense.”