Air Force-Florida Preview

The Associated Press

After carving out a reputation as a program that's been extremely effective on the offensive end under Billy Donovan, Florida is quickly becoming known for its defense.

Air Force is undergoing the opposite transformation.

Two losses in their last three have left room for the 14th-ranked Gators to get even better defensively, but they may have a difficult test in Saturday's Orange Bowl Classic against a Falcons team that's become rather efficient on offense.

The Gators (8-2) have been among the nation's top 40 in scoring in seven of the past nine years, leading the SEC in points per game (76.2) in that span.

They've only been among the nation's top 100 in scoring defense once in the past five seasons, but they're third (51.3 points per game) in that category this season despite letdowns in two of their last three games. Florida let then-No. 8 Arizona shoot 45.5 percent in falling 65-64 in Tucson on Dec. 15, then was outrebounded 36-27 and allowed Kansas State get to the line 29 times in last Saturday's 67-61 defeat in Kansas City, Mo.

"When we needed stops, we didn't get them," guard Kenny Boynton told the school's official website. "Offense affects defense, but we needed to get after them more and play with more intensity."

The Gators outrebounded their first nine opponents by 10.7 per contest, but may have a chance to get back to dominating the boards against Air Force (8-2). The Falcons are 199th in rebounding margin (minus-0.1) after being edged 36-27 but still beat host Cal Riverside 61-53 last Saturday.

Rebounding is one of the few things Air Force hasn't done well during the second-best 10-game start in school history. The Falcons were never higher than 223rd in scoring through December in Jeff Reynolds' five seasons on the sidelines, but they're 42nd (76.9 ppg) in Dave Pilipovich's first full season at the helm.

Mountain West Conference leading scorer Michael Lyons (20.5 ppg) had 14 of his game-high 22 in the second half against the Highlanders.

"Michael Lyons was really good," Pilipovich said." He made some great shots in the second half and sometimes just makes you say wow."

Air Force is shooting 49.2 percent from the field - 15th in the nation - but the Gators rank 13th in that category defensively, allowing opponents to shoot just 35.9 percent.

The Falcons have also cooled a bit during a sparse December schedule. Air Force is shooting 43.2 percent overall in three games this month, including 29.8 percent from beyond the arc.

While Lyons is unquestionably the Falcons' go-to scorer, Florida has four players averaging in double figures. That includes a pair of starting guards in Bonyton and Mike Rosario, but perhaps the Gators' biggest wild card is their big man.

Center Patric Young had 19 points and 10 boards in 26 minutes before fouling out against Kansas State, providing a much-needed interior presence on a team often defined by its success on the perimeter.

Young should be able to control the boards Saturday, but Air Force's chances of improving upon its 2-76 record against ranked opponents may come down to its ability to bother Florida's guards.

The Falcons are tied for seventh nationally in turnover differential (plus-6.1) and guard Todd Fletcher leads the country in assist-to-turnover margin (8.4).

Pestering Boynton, Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin won't be easy, though. The Gators have limited themselves to single-digit turnovers in four of their last six games.

Florida won the only previous meeting with Air Force 74-68 in the 1963 Gator Bowl tournament.

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