(AP) — Not even when Billy Donovan was guiding Florida to back-to-back national championships did he oversee such a stellar defensive team, as this season’s Gators rank among the best in the country.
Missouri’s task of cracking that defense likely will be more difficult if Laurence Bowers isn’t in the lineup.
The 10th-ranked Gators host the No. 17 Tigers in an SEC showdown Saturday in the first meeting between the schools.
Donovan took over in Gainesville prior to 1996-97, and through his first 16 seasons – which included national titles in 2006 and ’07 – his teams gave up an average of 66.8 points.
Florida has been far better on the defensive end this season, ranking third in the nation with 51.7 points allowed per game. The Gators (13-2, 3-0) held an eighth opponent to fewer than 50 points in Thursday’s 68-47 victory at Texas A&M, which shot 34.0 percent.
“We as a coaching staff have made some adjustments on things and we’ve done some different things that have helped,” Donovan said of improving the defense. “You can give them facts and show them where they need to get better and why.”
No player has scored more than 15 points against Florida during its five-game winning streak.
“I guess we have a better defense than even we even think we have,” said Scottie Wilbekin, who helped hold A&M leading scorer Elston Turner to four points and 1-for-10 shooting.
The Gators have won their first three SEC games by an average of 25.3 points and also rank fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 36.3.
“We’re just so locked in on defense right now,” said center Patric Young, who scored 18 points and had a team-high three steals Thursday.
That may not bode well for the Tigers, especially if they have to play a third straight game without their leading scorer.
Bowers, averaging 16.8 points, sprained his right MCL in a win over Alabama on Jan. 8. Without him last Saturday, Missouri fell 64-49 at Mississippi – posting its lowest point total since a 79-46 loss to Kansas on Feb. 18, 2006 – before rebounding with a 79-62 win over Georgia on Wednesday.
Coach Frank Haith said Bowers’ progress will be monitored up until game time.
“He’s actually doing really well,” Haith said. “I still don’t know that he’ll play Saturday, but we’re really pleased with his progress thus far.”
Five players scored in double figures to help make up for Bowers’ absence the last time out, with Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross contributing a team-best 15 points apiece.
Phil Pressey scored only five points but added six assists and leads the SEC averaging 7.3 per contest. Alex Oriakhi finished with 13 points and hit all five of his field-goal attempts.
“Coach always talks about, `How do you handle adversity, how do you play when things don’t go your way?'” Oriakhi said. “I think it was a great test and we’ll have to build off this.”
Missouri is tied for ninth in the conference with 64.6 points allowed per game. It will have to contend with a healthy Mike Rosario, who scored 19 points for Florida on Thursday after missing last Saturday’s victory over LSU with a sprained left ankle.
“It felt good out there,” he said. “It felt how it was supposed to feel.”
Though these schools have never met, Haith is 1-2 against the Gators from his time coaching Miami.