Editor's note: Each Friday morning, Jay Bilas will break down the weekend's top game. This week it’s No. 5 Florida (7-0) at No. 8 Arizona (7-0) at 10 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN.
Gators outlook: The difference for Florida this season is defense. Last season, UF gave up 40 percent shooting from 3-point range and got hurt by being overextended. This season, the Gators are staying home more and packing it in. Instead of playing out in passing lanes and denying, they are playing off more, not playing as far up the line, and showing their chests to the ball and building a wall to protect the lane and the rim. That has meant fewer help rotations and better defensive rebounding, limiting opponents to one challenged shot (outrebounding opponents by 10.7 per game). The results are obvious. Florida has a top-five defense, and has done it with both man-to-man and zone. The Gators still press, speed the game and make you play at a speed you don’t practice. And they have done a great job of not just forcing turnovers, but converting off turnovers. Florida has scored more than twice as many points off turnovers as its opponents (21.3 to 9.9).
On the offensive end, UF is a ball-screen team that can really stretch out a defense, and really attacks and gets to the free throw line. Florida has made more free throws than its opponents have attempted. Four Gators average between 14.4 points and 10.3 points per game. This is a team that scored 74 points against Wisconsin, a team that gave up only 53 points per game last season, and blasted Marquette and Florida State.
Florida has good, experienced guards in Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin, a strong presence in Patric Young (an interior player who, when he keeps it simple, can be really effective), and an elite and versatile defender in Will Yeguete, who can defend multiple spots, get offensive rebounds and affect the game without scoring.
Wildcats outlook: Last season, Arizona was not a great shooting team, but could not compensate for it with second-shot opportunities or post-ups because Sean Miller did not have the personnel. This season, he has the personnel. The Wildcats have great size up front and very good depth. (But don’t listen to those who suggest that having big-guy depth gives you extra fouls to waste, which is silly. You don’t waste fouls, which puts your opponent at the free throw line for common fouls and leads to losses.) With freshmen Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett, Miller has two big men who can affect the game. Tarczewski is a traditional low-post banger who seeks out contact and can score around the goal, and is the team's top rebounder. Jerrett is a long-armed big man who can step away and knock in an open 3-point shot.
Arizona has good guards, good size and good balance. Another frontcourt player to watch is Brandon Ashley, a freshman who has a terrific understanding of the game, can really hit the glass and can go off the bounce. Ashley has been up and down, but he put up 20 points and 10 rebounds against Long Beach State, and just had nine points and six rebounds at Clemson. With Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, Miller has an experienced, big-game guard who is unafraid of anything but takes some criticism for being loose with the ball. Lyons has more turnovers than assists, but he is hardly a turnover machine. He can attack pressure and score or get fouled, and that will be an asset against Florida.
Nick Johnson is leading the Wildcats in scoring, assists and steals, and is a tremendous athlete with explosiveness, transition ability and the ability to defend. Johnson can shoot it and can get to the rim and finish. He has been the Wildcats’ best player in the first month and a half. A key player against Florida will be Solomon Hill, a versatile and skilled wing who can see the floor and handle the ball. He will be vital in the press offense. Hill has not shot the ball well this season and is coming off a 2-for-16 night at Clemson, but he is UA’s most versatile and most valuable player.
Gators go-to: Kenny Boynton. An outstanding defender who has been doing a very good job getting into the lane and getting to the free throw line, Boynton is one of the best senior guards in the country. He is averaging 14.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and is shooting 90 percent from the free throw line. He can get hot in a hurry and is rarely rattled. Boynton needs to play well for Florida to win on the road.
Wildcats wonder: Lyons. He is an attack guard who can really score and is willing to take on any challenge. Lyons is averaging 13 points per game, yet is third on the team in shots taken, and is coming off a 20-point game against Clemson. Against the full-court pressure of Florida, expect Lyons to be on the attack and to look to score against pressure.
Gators X-factor: Erik Murphy. The most impressive individual performance I have seen all season was Murphy’s 24-point perfect game against Wisconsin in which he did not miss a single shot. Murphy can really shoot it and is a terrific pick-and-pop big man. He is skilled and can score in the post or step away. He will provide a tough matchup for any Arizona big man, but I expect Hill to take him on, which will be a great matchup. Hill is an underrated defender, and he was terrific this summer at the Nike Skills Academies.
Wildcats X-factor: Kevin Parrom. This strong senior wing has been through a lot in his career and has come through stronger. He originally signed with Xavier, was the victim of a gunshot wound in his own home in New York, yet has been an efficient offensive player who excels in transition, can drive the ball, hit open 3s and find the open man. Parrom also is a willing defender. In a high-level game with young teammates, his toughness and ability can make a big difference.
Key stats: Three-point field goal defense and points off turnovers. Florida feeds off turnovers and can turn a mistake or a bad shot into a layup or opportunistic 3 on the other end. And the Gators are not shy about pulling the trigger on a 3 in transition. The Wildcats cannot turn the ball over and expect to win. Turnovers take away a shot opportunity but also take away a chance for an offensive rebound or foul while putting your defense at a disadvantage. Arizona does not defend the 3-point line as well as the rim, and Florida will involve the young big men in ball screens high and flat and on the sides. How the Cats guard those screens and rotate will be a key factor in the game.
Who wins: Arizona has to get out in front of Florida early and stay in front. The Gators have trailed only twice this season and have not trailed a single second after the first five minutes of any game. This game will be about making decisions and completing plays. The Wildcats have to guard ball screens with a plan, handle pressure in full-court situations, and then handle both man and zone with both aggressiveness and patience. Florida is the better team, but this is the toughest environment the Gators have faced this season. I favor the Gators in this one, but not by much. Florida wins 76-72.