Marquette Men’s Basketball: Gators will provide daunting challenge

Sophomore forward Jake Thomas isn’t sure exactly what to expect tonight against Florida, but knows it will be “fast and physical.” Photo by Vale Cardenas/

The Golden Eagles are headed into their first true road contest of the season, and it couldn’t take place in a more hostile environment.

As part of the SEC/Big East challenge, Marquette takes on No. 7/7 Florida tonight at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. The arena may seat just 11,548, but in recent history, the “O’Dome” has gained a reputation as one of the toughest venues for opposing teams in the nation.

Florida has maintained a 98-15 home record since 2006 and is 103-6 over the last 12 years at home against nonconference opponents. The Gators already routed visiting Wisconsin 74-56 on Nov. 14 and have started the season 5-0.

The Big East may be one of the toughest conferences in the nation, but its teams certainly haven’t frightened Billy Donovan. In 16 seasons as Florida’s coach, Donovan has beaten Big East opponents 16 out of 26 times.

“I think Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches in the country,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “I think he’s one of the best coaches under 50. I think he’ll be in the Hall of Fame long before his career is over as a coach. Their home court winning percentage speaks for itself.”

Florida will be hungry for another big statement win after weather issues forced the cancellation of the Navy/Marine Corps Classic matchup against Georgetown.

The Gators and Hoyas played the first half on the deck of the USS Bataan in Jacksonville on Nov. 9, but much like Marquette’s matchup with Ohio State, the game was canceled due to floor condensation.

In this regard, however, Marquette may be even more anxious for a chance to shine.

The Golden Eagles were also robbed of a chance to take on North Carolina in the Maui Invitational by a miracle 3-pointer as time expired from Butler’s Rotnei Clarke. While easy wins over Mississippi State and Southern California made for a nice Maui trip, Marquette is aiming higher.

“We haven’t played against a top 10 team yet, so we don’t really know what to expect,” junior guard Jake Thomas said. “I know that they’re going to try to play hard, and they’re going to try to push us, and it’s going to be really physical and fast.”

The returning members of last year’s Sweet 16 squad know exactly what to expect, however.

Junior forward Jamil Wilson said at the beginning of the season that he was most looking forward to getting another shot at the Gators after they brought Marquette’s 2011-12 season to a bitter, disappointing end.

Williams said Florida is better than they were at this point last season, better than they were in March and good enough to win a national championship.

While top 5 NBA draft pick guard Bradley Beal and guard Erving Walker are gone, the Gators still have plenty of the speed and three-point sharpshooting that gave the Golden Eagles fits in the form of senior guard Kenny Boynton.

Boynton is the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers attempted with 786, and he’s made 275 of those shots. He’s helped the Gators average 7.4 buckets from beyond the arc per game so far this season.

Florida has also gotten the job done in the paint boasting a +10.6 rebound margin this season. Forwards Will Yeguete and Patric Young have combined for 17.2 points and 15.2 rebounds per game.

“We will have our hands full from the very beginning,” Williams said. “They will set multiple ball screens per possession. Forty percent of their field goal attempts have been from three. And of the field goal attempts they have missed, they have rebounded 50 percent of them, which is staggering.”

Both teams play with a fast-paced, bruising style, and neither gives up many turnovers, while forcing over 15 per game. The Marquette defense has played well so far this season, and if it can match the Gators and keep the game close, the Golden Eagles will have a chance at stealing a win.