Posted December 10, 2013

Florida, Kansas facing more questions than answers in marquee matchup

Andrew Wiggins, Florida, Kansas, Uncategorized
Casey Prather, Florida

Casey Prather has made a huge leap in his senior season, just when Florida neeeded it most. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty)

Three things to watch Tuesday night when No. 13 Kansas visits No. 19 Florida.

Florida’s health 

It’s been hard to judge Florida so far. Thanks to a litany of injuries and suspension-related absences, the Gators have not been at full strength at any point during their 6-2 start. That will still be the case when Billy Donovan’s team hosts Kansas Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center, but the Gators did receive some good news on the injury front Monday. Guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill, both nursing high ankle sprains, have been cleared to play Tuesday night, according to Donovan. That means Florida will have three of its best backcourt players – Wilbekin, Hill and Michael Frazier – available. But Florida is still far from full-strength.

Two of Florida’s guards, Dillon Graham and Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, opted to redshirt because of injuries. McDonald’s All-American forward Chris Walker has reportedly completed his coursework and is on track to enroll at Florida for the spring semester, but he won’t be available Tuesday night. And promising South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris, who was suspended due to unknown offseason violations, could soon be leaving the team. As Alligator Army notes, Florida will face the Jayhawks with just eight scholarship players available.

So while the Gators will benefit from having Wilbekin and Hill back for their biggest non-conference game of the season, they will still be undermanned. It will be interesting to see how they adapt, particularly in the frontcourt, where Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith will have their hands full Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid.

When did Casey Prather become this good?

Players often make their biggest “leap” – statistical and otherwise – between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Prather’s breakout campaign came two years later. Last season, Prather posted a 116.2 offensive rating and 62.8 true shooting percentage while using 19.5 percent of possessions and playing 33.6 percent of available minutes, according to Kenpom.com. This season, the 6-6 senior has bumped his offensive rating to 121.5, his true shooting percentage to 66.8, his usage rate to 30.1 and is playing 75.9 percent of available minutes. Prather is pulling off the difficult task of shouldering a bigger bulk of his team’s offensive workload while becoming a more efficient scorer. Prather has been excellent this season when attacking the basket on the break: On 37 possessions in transition, Prather has scored an average of 1.405 points per possession, according to Synergy scouting data.

How will he fare against Kansas Tuesday night? Prather has yet to score fewer than 10 points in a game this season (after doing it just seven times all of last season), and that streak should continue against the Jayhawks. But if Kansas decides to switch Andrew Wiggins, one of the best one-on-one defenders in the country (who shut down Duke star Jabari Parker in the second half of their game at the Champions Classic in early November) onto Prather, he could struggle.

Can Kansas rebound?

There are two ways to approach this question. The obvious answer is, yes, Kansas can rebound, to the tune of a 26.8 percent defensive rebounding percentage and 32.4 percent offensive rebounding percentage. The more theoretical interpretation of the question draws on an even more important, macro issue: Can Kansas bounce back from Saturday’s loss at No. 21 Colorado and avoid a losing streak amid arguably the toughest stretch of non-conference games in the country? The Jayhawks are extremely young — their average experience of 0.71 years ranks 348th out of 351 Division I teams. They are also extremely talented; three Kansas players are listed on Sports Illustrated’s latest NBA Draft big board. The question is, at this stage of the season, does Kansas’ inexperience outweigh its talent?

We should get a pretty good indication Tuesday night, as Kansas will grapple with a Florida team ranked 16th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. The Jayhawks should be encouraged by the way Wiggins, who looked disengaged at times during games against Villanova and UTEP at the Battle 4 Atlantis, played against the Buffaloes. The freshman scored 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting and put the team on his shoulders in the second half, nearly leading the Jayhawks to a victory. If Wiggins can build off Saturday’s performance, and Embiid can stay out of foul trouble, Kansas has a good chance to leave Gainesville Tuesday night with a victory. A loss wouldn’t be devastating, but Kansas will need to regroup quickly for upcoming tests against New Mexico (Dec. 14), Georgetown (Dec. 21), Toledo (Dec. 30) and No. 25 San Diego State (Jan. 5).

It’s still early in the season, so it’s probably not a good idea to put too much stock into the result of Tuesday night’s game. “I hate to say this, and this isn’t being critical, but we didn’t think we’d be a great team by Christmas,” Kansas coach Bill Self told The Wichita Eagle Sunday. “And the preseason ratings, they shouldn’t have had us there. But what we could be, we could play (to that ranking) at the end. But we couldn’t play there in the beginning.”

Self may be right. Maybe Kansas needs more time to develop before it can be considered a “great” team. Notching a road win against the Gators would be a big step in that direction.

Statistical support for this post was provided by Kenpom.com.

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