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Nov 11, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators guard Chris Chiozza (11) goes up for a shot in the second half against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Florida Gators 80-59. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Prepares for Hardest Test Yet against Belmont

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team squares off against the Belmont Bruins tonight in Tampa at the Amalie Arena for just the second time in program history. The two teams met in 2001, when the 3rd-ranked Gators downed the Bruins, 107-55. Belmont is currently ranked 11th in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25, while the Gators have moved up to #19 in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Rankings.

Coaching: Rick Byrd is in his 31st season coaching Belmont basketball and is one of only five active NCAA coaches to have 500 or more wins at one school. Byrd has accounted for 59% of the Bruins’ wins in program history, ranking first among active coaches in the category. While he’s led Belmont from the NAIA in his first season to where they are now, in the Division 1 Ohio Valley Conference, his coaching style has never changed. Byrd has always been a major proponent of keeping your act together, not losing your focus and finishing the other team when they mentally breakdown. That style has led Belmont to seven NCAA tournament appearances in the last 11 years. Byrd was also born in Knoxville, Tennessee, which gives this game a little more edge than it normally would have.

Senior Stud: Evan Bradds is a senior at Belmont and has been a fan favorite since day one. Bradds is averaging 22.5 points, 11 rebounds and 1 steal per game and was ranked the 3rd most efficient player in the nation last season, per Ken Pomeroy. He’s also shooting a ridiculous 56.3% from the field and 66.7% from three-point range. Last game, in a 90-69 win over Western Kentucky, he dropped 26 points on 12-17 shooting, while grabbing 14 boards and dropping 4 dimes. Bradds has been an AP Honorable Mention and OVC Player of the Year honoree for the past two seasons. He’s also led the nation in field goal percentage the last two years. If you want to beat Belmont, it’s simple; you have to stop Bradds.

Nov 15, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Belmont Bruins guard Austin Luke (1) controls the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt won 80-66. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Belmont Bruins guard Austin Luke (1) controls the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores during the second half at Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt won 80-66. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

No Range, no Change: Belmont, since moving from the NAIA to NCAA DI in 1996, has made the second most three-point shots in the nation, second to only Duke. If Florida tries to make the game a three-point shootout, they’ll be on the losing side of the battle. The Gators have shot a poor 35.1% from downtown this season.

Moving the Rock: The bruins are t-19th in the country in assists per game. The passing attack is led by junior Austin Luke. The upperclassman from Rowlett, Texas is averaging 7.5 assists per game, while adding 10.5 points per game. He’s one of only three players on Belmont to average 29 or more minutes per game this season. Luke is also a problem from beyond the arc, shooting 41.7% from three-point range on the season.

Strong Start: Florida is looking to start the season out 4-0 for the first time since the 2012-2013 team, who went to the Elite 8 before losing to Michigan. The Gators have had an average margin of victory of 16.7 points in their first three games this season.

Everybody Plays, Everybody Wins: Florida has 8 different players this season who are playing 14.3 minutes or more per game in Devin Robinson, Canyon Barry, KeVaughn Allen, Justin Leon, John Egbunu, Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza and Kevarrius Hayes. While the rotation really goes about 9 men deep, with redshirt freshman Keith Stone playing 7 minutes per game, Coach Mike White has done a good job consistently getting a lot of his players into the game in different situations. This kind of prep will come in handy against SEC schools who try and run each other into the ground. All of these reasons add to why Coach White constantly tries to keep his team in such good shape.

Junior Surprise: Devin Robinson has really improved his game this year, and is leading the Gators with 13.3 points per game, to go along with 7.3 rebounds per game. D-Rob is also shooting a team high 63.6% from the field and 66.7% from three-point range. Multiple NBA scouts have attended games to see Robinson play, including the Miami Heat’s Bob McAdoo.

Nov 11, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators guard Canyon Barry (24) takes a under hand free throw in the second half against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Florida Gators won 80-59. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 11, 2016; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators guard Canyon Barry (24) takes a under hand free throw in the second half against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. Florida Gators won 80-59. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Free Throws Indeed: The Gators are shooting 74.1% so far from the free-throw line this season, a stark improvement from their abysmal 64.1% last season. Despite shooting 65.5% from the charity stripe against St. Bonaventure, Florida’s “22” drills this offseason and preseason have worked tremendously. To put it in perspective, the Gators’ 80% performance from the free throw line against Mercer marked only the fifth time in the last two seasons combined that Florida has shot 80% or better from the free throw line. Coach White would love to put free throws in the back of his mind this season. He noted in a media availability this season that free throws single-handedly were the reason his team didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last season.

How to Watch/Listen: 

The game tips off at 7 p.m. from the Amalie Arena and can be seen on the SEC Network with Dave Neal and Jon Sundvold. You can listen to the game, as always, on the Gator IMG Sports Network and Sirius 135 with Mick Hubert and Mark Wise on the call. If Florida sticks with the rotation they’ve been going with, Kasey Hill, KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, Justin Leon and John Egbunu should be the starters vs. Belmont. The Bruins’ usual starters include Austin Luke, Evan Bradds, Dylan Windler, Taylor Barnette and Amanze Egekeze.

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