GAINESVILLE — It is an odd twist of fate that Florida finds itself playing Syracuse in the midst of a brewing scandal involving former Orange assistant coach Bernie Fine, but Florida coach Billy Donovan hopes that when the 10th-ranked Gators and No. 4 Orange tip off tonight in the Carrier Dome, both sides can focus solely on the game.
"I think it's just a tough situation for everybody," Donovan said. " … It really has nothing to do with us, as sad as the whole thing is for everyone involved. I think the players, for both teams, are just going to go out there and play."
This is Florida's second top-five opponent in the past three weeks; the Gators lost 81-74 at then-No. 3 Ohio State last month.
Florida faces a Syracuse team loaded with big men without one of its own key big men. Starting forward Erik Murphy will miss his second game with a knee bruise and slight meniscus tear. The Gators expect their biggest challenge to come from Syracuse's stellar 2-3 zone.
"One of the reasons their zone is effective is because they have great length, they have great size," Donovan said. "They can alter shots around the basket, and their perimeter guys do a great job of getting out on two shooters. Certainly you've got to make great decisions. … Our guys have got to be strong with the ball, and they've got to take care of the ball."
And they have to rebound. With the use of its four-guard lineup more consistently of late, the onus has fallen on Florida's guards to crash the boards more than ever, so far with fairly good success. UF is tied for sixth in the nation in rebounding margin (plus 11.4), led by center Patric Young and guard Bradley Beal. Florida hopes to counter Syracuse with four good shooters and a strong inside game.
"We'll get a lot of open shots because they'll have to respect four shooters when we're on the floor," guard Kenny Boynton said. "They have to respect Patric's game on the inside. If Patric starts with a good offensive game, they'll definitely have a hard time guarding us. But we've played Syracuse before, and we know you can't settle (for 3-pointers). That's what they want; they want you to hit your first two 3s and eventually they know you're not going to hit them all. They try to capitalize on that, so we've definitely got to try to get the ball in to Patric and penetrate their zone."
Junior guard Mike Rosario, a Rutgers transfer, has the unique perspective of having played in the Carrier Dome. He said the Gators have to be prepared for a hostile environment.
"It's a crazy atmosphere," Rosario said. "It's loud, and it's a lot of orange. A lot of orange. It's a dome, and those guys love to go out there and have fun. Their fans are loyal, so it's going to be a good atmosphere to play in. I think this will be a great challenge for us again, another step forward."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]