Middle Tennessee-Florida Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 17, 2012
While some thought Florida might take a step back after losing Bradley Beal and Erving Walker, Erik Murphy's much-improved game could keep the Gators among the nation's elite. Scottie Wilbekin's return from suspension should also help. Wilbekin will be available for the first time Sunday as No. 10 Florida and Middle Tennessee square off in Tampa. Wilbekin was reinstated Friday after a team-imposed ban held him out of three games - including Florida's canceled season opener against Georgetown aboard the USS Bataan. The junior entered this season as the starting point guard but is expected to come off the bench Sunday. "He certainly paid a price of missing three games," coach Billy Donovan said. "I felt like it was time to let him come back and start practicing and be part of our team. "I think right now he needs to move forward ... and if he does that, he has the opportunity to earn back what he's lost." The Gators (2-0) haven't missed a beat without Wilbekin, cruising to an 84-35 win over Alabama State last Sunday before easily beating No. 22 Wisconsin 74-56 on Wednesday. Murphy led the way with a career high-tying 24 points, making all 10 of his field-goal attempts. "Mr. Versatility is what you should call him," teammate Pat Young said. "He knocked down 3s. He knocked down pull-ups. He was in the post. He was making moves. He was getting offensive rebounds and putting them back up. That was just really cool just seeing him play that way. "I know he's been able to play like that for a long time. It's just been a matter of time for him to get the opportunity to actually do it, and I'm really proud of him." More than half of Murphy's 270 field-goal attempts in 2011-12 came from 3-point range, but he's learning to make better use of his 6-foot-10 frame. "That's the one dimension that I told Erik that he needed to add to his game: being able to catch the ball inside against a smaller person and score," Donovan said. Murphy and the Gators will look to stay hot against the Blue Raiders (2-0) as these schools meet for the first time. Though Florida will be a clear favorite, Donovan isn't taking this matchup lightly after Middle Tennessee went 27-7 last season. "I think sometimes people look at leagues and they determine BCS, high-major, mid-major, low-major, and I think that Middle Tennessee the last couple years has been a high-major program," he said. "They've got a lot of depth, they're very, very well coached. ... (Coach Kermit Davis has) built an incredible program there, so this is an unbelievable challenge for us - and maybe even in some ways a much, much more difficult challenge than playing Wisconsin." The Blue Raiders posted a 97-53 win over Alabama State in their opener, then pulled out a 58-55 victory at Savannah State on Tuesday. Senior Marcos Knight scored a career-high 21 points off the bench for Middle Tennessee, which overcame 21 turnovers. "Every possession counts," Knight told the school's official athletics website. "Coach Davis talks to us about that. You can't turn the ball over, you've got to box out, rebound, make good shots, move the ball from side to side. He's a great coach and we listen to him and came out with the victory." The Blue Raiders have dropped their last six matchups against ranked foes by an average of 32.3 points.
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