(AP) - Billy Donovan has coached plenty of good defensive teams in his 17 seasons at Florida.
None of them quite like this.
The fourth-ranked Gators have been ridiculously stingy this season, especially in SEC play, and their next challenge comes Saturday night against No. 16 Mississippi and conference leading scorer Marshall Henderson.
Florida (17-2, 7-0) ranks second in the nation in scoring defense, giving up a paltry 50.4 points a game. The Gators have held 15 teams under 60 points, 11 under 50 and three under 40.
The latest defensive masterpiece came Wednesday night against South Carolina. In winning its ninth consecutive game, Florida allowed the program’s fewest points (36) in conference play during the shot-clock era.
Now, the SEC’s top scoring team in Mississippi (17-3, 6-1) visits Gainesville. The Rebels are averaging 80.0 points, led by Henderson’s 19.3 per game, and should provide a tough test for Florida’s stout D.
No SEC team has really challenged the Gators so far. Florida has won seven games by an average of 28.3 points, looking like the class of the field in a watered-down league.
“We’re just consistent,” forward Will Yeguete said. “We have a couple of breakdowns a game, but we stay consistent. We keep guarding teams every single time, possession after possession. … It’s good to say that you’re a really good defensive team.”
Making opponents uncomfortable starts with guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kenny Boynton, both aggressive, on-ball defenders who have the quickness and stamina to run the press, the length to affect perimeter shots and the kind of experience that makes it easy to get them on the same page.
Wilbekin kept Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (season-low 11 points), Texas A&M’s Elston Turner (4 points on 1-of-10 shooting) and Missouri’s Phil Pressey (2 points, 10 turnovers) in check last month.
Boynton, who leads the Gators with 13.6 points per game, was equally effective the last two games against Mississippi State’s Jalen Steele (scoreless) and South Carolina’s Bruce Ellington (7 points on 2-of-9 shooting).
Next up is Henderson, whose play has led to plenty of attention for the Rebels. Henderson has been so good during his first two months in the SEC that the 6-foot-2 junior has brought a rare spotlight to a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2002.
He’s averaging 21.3 points in conference play as Ole Miss enters its most crucial stretch of the season. Henderson scored 21 on Tuesday in the Rebels’ first SEC loss, 87-74 at home to Kentucky, but shot 5 of 19 from the field - 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
The loss was costly for the Rebels. One of their most important reserves Aaron Jones - a 6-9 sophomore who is the primary backup for both Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner - tore the ACL in his left knee and is out for the season. Backup guard Nick Williams, averaging 9.4 points, is also out indefinitely after re-aggravating a foot injury against the Wildcats.
So the onus is on Henderson to keep producing for the short-handed Rebels, who had their nine-game win streak snapped.
That won’t be easy against a Gators team that has crushed everyone in the SEC so far - the closest game was a 64-47 victory at Georgia on Jan. 23.
Donovan is wary of Henderson, who is attempting nearly 11 3-pointers per game.
“He’s got really, really good speed to come off screens,” Donovan said. “He’s got the ability to kind of get himself squared up pretty quickly. He can make tough shots. He can make challenged shots.”
Florida has dominated this series over the past decade, winning 10 of 11 since the start of the 2002-03 season. The Gators have won the past six meetings in Gainesville and are 35-11 all-time at home against the Rebels.