Shorthanded throughout the first month of the season due to a flurry of suspensions and injuries, Florida slid down the Top 25 rankings and entered the second week of December still lacking a resumé-boosting win.
On Tuesday night, the Gators delivered a reminder everyone would be wise not to discount them.
A nearly full-strength Florida team flummoxed Kansas with its aggressive 1-3-1 zone in the first half and withstood a late rally from the Jayhawks to emerge with an impressive 67-61 home victory. The Gators are now 2-1 in their toughest stretch of the season with a date with Memphis still to come next week.
Florida won't have its full complement of weapons until highly touted freshman forward Chris Walker rejoins the team after the fall semester ends later this month, but the Gators had a stronger roster Tuesday than it did in previous losses against UConn and Wisconsin. Point guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill were both available in the same game for the first time after missing time due to injuries.
Wilbekin was Florida's best player Tuesday night, scoring a team-high 18 points, dishing out six assists and relentlessly pressuring the ball. Nonetheless, the biggest key to the Gators' success was the staggering 24 turnovers Kansas committed trying to solve Florida's length and quickness choking off the passing lanes in the 1-3-1 zone.
Sixteen of those turnovers came in the first half when Kansas surrendered a 21-0 Gators blitz and fell behind by as many as 18 points. The Jayhawks don't hit consistently enough from the perimeter to shoot an opposing team out of its zone and they weren't able to either penetrate the zone off the dribble or via entry passes without turning the ball over.
Kansas' improvement in the second half was largely a product of generating defensive stops and getting out in transition before Florida could set its zone. It also helped that Andrew Wiggins donned his superman cape and got more aggressive, scoring 18 of his season-high 26 points in the second half and sinking four 3-pointers in the process.
Florida's lead shrank to as little as four in the final seconds, but the Jayhawks never truly mounted a serious charge. Kansas (6-3) hadn't suffered its third loss this early since the 2005-06 season when the Jayhawks opened 3-4 before rallying to win 25 games and capture the Big 12 title.
For Kansas, the loss was another reminder it will take time for a team with no starters returning from last season to jell. Wiggins was brilliant in the second half and the defense was largely solid, but no other Jayhawks reached double figures and the youthful team lost its poise and got rattled on the road as Florida mounted its first-half run.
As for the Gators, this victory was a reminder of the potential Florida has when healthy because its combination of length, quickness, size and depth.
It was easy to overlook Florida the past four weeks. It may not be much longer.
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