So ends the Florida Gators’ 2017-2018 basketball season — leaving me depressed, but also tasked with the impossible. How do I wrap up something shaped so irregularly? How do I “put a bow” on this one?
Like the promise of a present – Florida’s season was preceded by wonder, anticipation, excitement. Experts and fans alike shook the box and listened. And much like my 8-year-old son who can quickly deduce, “it’s a Lego set!” – – – pundits and enthusiasts alike came to the same conclusion.
This is a good one!
For my son – the equivalent of a 500-piece set. Maybe even a Star Wars set!
Yup, that good.
And so the pieces were analyzed, and places predicted.
Egor will play the 3.
Hayes and Gak will hold down the Center position until Egbunu returns.
Chase Johnson will provide depth at the forward spot.
Jalen Hudson will start on the wing.
The assembly began before the season started — before the box was even opened.
Who knew there would be pieces missing? And some broken.
The early season certainly offered no indication. The Gators raced to a 5-0 start, feasting on Stanford Thanksgiving night and topping Gonzaga 111-105 in a Friday night thriller.
Sure, Florida was offering up far too many points – but still hoarding more than giving.
The pieces were coming together just as planned.
Or were they?
Florida’s glue-guy and consummate teammate, Kevarrius Hayes, was suspended for a game – a development as uncharacteristic as his early, lethargic play.
Chase Johnson sustained a concussion shortly after the Stanford outing. But surely, he’d be back soon… along with that missing big piece – John Egbunu.
Mid January? Perfect timing!
In the meantime, the Gators were piling points and wins! No worries.
Yet the architects themselves were concerned about a shaky foundation.
“We have to guard at a much higher level, rebound at a much higher level, guard without fouling,” said its chief designer, Mike White, after another win and 100-point outburst.
Even after conceding a 17-point lead to Duke, Florida emerged from the PK80 tournament as America’s darling.
“Florida is legit,” exclaimed Jay Bilas.
Legitimately on the brink.
A 17-point home loss to rival Florida State stung, but had to be a “Portland hangover”. And then came an unfathomably “bad loss” to Loyola Chicago.
But something else ailed a Florida team facing a sudden fall from grace and the national rankings.
White knew exactly.
“We’re not nearly as, again, tough — I hate to wear the word out — tough, reliable, accountable, gritty. We’re not close,” he lamented.
But we will be when John Egbunu returns!
Mid January, right?
And what about Stokes?
By the way– what’s going on with Chase?
Is Gorjok Gak injured?
The Gators were reeling — on a three-game losing streak — when its sturdiest pieces refused to buckle under the weighing pressure. Chris Chiozza scored his team’s final 6 points, and Egor Koulechov tallied 21 points and 7 rebounds in a narrow, desperate victory over highly ranked Cincinnati.
Florida found toughness and grit in its 6’0 point guard and undersized power forward.
“[They] in my opinion are two of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, two of the toughest kids in college basketball,” White would later reflect at season’s end. “Pound for pound they’re warriors and I love those guys.”
Yes, Egor was playing power forward. By now, the box was opened on Florida’s season and it was evident parts were missing and pieces had to be moved.
And as the Gators’ season moved, so did a developing storyline. Chris Chiozza, the backup turned buzzer-beating hero, was something much more. He was the best point guard in the conference and among the greatest in the country.
But he wasn’t done with the buzzer beaters.
“75-75. Guice with the ball… angles right, 5 seconds left. Guice now out front…. CHEESE STEALS THE BALL! CHIOZZA WITH A STEAL! HE RUNS DOWN … HE SCORES! HE SCORES! AND THE BALL GAME IS GONNA BE ALL OVER. AND THE GATORS HAVE WON THE GAME! OH MY!”
It was yet another “Oh my” moment for Chiozza – one that strained Mick’s vocal cords to raspy exhaustion.
Chiozza calmly flashed the “Florida” written across his jersey and back peddled as the horn sounded in Missouri.
“I had three seconds and I was already at half court, so I knew I had enough time,” Chiozza recalled. “I just wanted to slow down a bit and make sure I didn’t trip or anything.”
Slow down and not trip – an interesting choice of words for a Florida team that seemed to be taking the same tact. Gone were the 100+ point outings and the Loyola-Marymount paced possessions – something White considered ‘unsustainable’ even as unknowing fans still clamored for ‘fast’.
Toughness. Grit. Defense. White was still preaching all three, and his team seemed to be slowly embracing.
The Gators won their first four conference games, and 6 of the opening 7.
“We are getting tougher,” White said following Chiozza’s heroics. “We showed poise, we showed resiliency, we showed maturity. Even when Missouri made some late-clock daggers, we stuck together and stayed the course.”
But the season course would remain erratic.
Kevaughn Allen finally had a breakout performance, scoring a season-high 28 points in a victory over Arkansas during that opening stretch.
A few weeks later, the same explosive guard tallied not a point versus Tennessee -a loss that capped a nearly devastating 3-game skid.
The once lethargic Hayes was lauded by his coach as “playing with his mojo again”, only to seemingly lose it, re-find and sometimes seemingly lose it all over again.
Egor was either aptly named 3-Gor when his shot was on… but had fans thinking ‘No-Mor’ during periodic dry spells.
Peaks and valleys defined not only these three, but the team. Only Chiozza seemed impervious.
But peaks were at altitudes that left fans breathless- including a long-coveted win at Rupp arena.
“I wanted to be able to say I won here once in my career,” Chiozza said following the rare road victory over Kentucky.
He could say it – and claim it in the rarest of fashions. Florida won with defense – interior defense, as Stone and Koulechov took turns blocking the Wildcat’s last second attempts to tie the game.
Calipari, of course, screamed ‘foul’.
Gators’ fans screamed for joy!
And foul? What foul?
“I saw my guys flying around and trying to make plays,” White responded. “Hands on basketball down the stretch. Really active. And resiliency.”
The Gators were sometimes resilient, but always nice — an odd descriptor of a basketball squad.
“Again, these guys aren’t really animated. Really, really nice guys. Too nice of a group, really. I’d like to see this group one day tear up a locker room after we lose, but that’s not happening,” White lamented.
It was an attribute that had once drawn the label of “soft” from its coach, but simultaneously garnered the love of soft-hearted fans. Such is true of Paul Tilly, a fan who published a revealing story of his family’s experience with Florida’s players following a win over LSU.
“Just as we were leaving we looked back to see almost the entire team coming into the lobby. Unfortunately, this happened just as the door locked shut,” he recalled. “They were so bummed to see Cheese, Allen, Stone, Jalen and Hayes all standing 30 feet away, but unable to meet them. That is until Kevaughn saw my 7-year-old staring and came over to let us all in himself. He then told all the other guys to come over… and they all did. So, my kids very first trip to the O’Dome was made extra special by a great bunch of kids.”
It was always a great bunch of kids – even if it not always played great basketball. When it did, those “oh my” moments resulted.
Fans’ hearts rose with last second wins, victors over Kentucky and unlikely rallies at the season’s lowest points. And those same hearts sunk with shots that wouldn’t sink, injuries that wouldn’t heal and losses that couldn’t be explained.
It was easiest and most difficult team to cheer for — and fans cheered. And perhaps never louder than with 6:06 remaining in the first half of Florida’s home game against Kentucky. A player who always elevated his teammates and team, was elevated himself — to the top of Florida’s all-time assist list. The unlikely race to the record began when then-freshman Chris Chiozza notched a non-descript assist to walk-on Jacob Kurtz. Fast forward thru 547 assists to a crowd holding its collective breath.
“Cheese” drives hard to his right, crosses over to his left before turning to kick the ball out to an open Keith Stone.
“I was just trying not to think about it too much,” Chiozza said. “Keith hit it and I gave him a hug soon as the next timeout came. It was just another unforgettable moment.”
Another indeed . . . another within a season that seemed to offer disproportionate amount of unforgettable moments- both joyous and painful.
Chiozza raised his hands skyward and offered a couple Gator Chomps as he stepped away from the O’Connell Center floor one last time. The ultimate Gator….the ultimate teammate….the ultimate winner was able to walk off as such.
“You want it to go that way, but you never know,” he said. “It’s just amazing to go off that way, me and Egor. It’s just a moment I’m never going to forget, just walking off the court, saying goodbye to the home crowd for the last time,” Chiozza reflected.
It was a palpable mix of emotions for fans in attendance, reveling in victory, but watery-eyed by the moment.
Big John Egbunu – the season long missing piece also stepped onto the floor that day, but only for pregame honors. Mid January rolled in February and fans became resolved to the fact he would not return long before it was formally announced. Still, the weight of the news seemed as heavy as the brawny center himself.
Florida closed its regular season with a once seemingly impossible run of wins over Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season right now,” White noted.
And Florida was! It was gritty, tough and defensive.
The Gators bombed out of the SEC Tournament with a disconcerting regression … one that left fans, and pundits questioning its character and chances. Florida landed a 6-seed, but was largely dismissed and predicted to lose before even having a named opponent.
“I say right now, the winner of that St. Bonaventure/UCLA matchup will beat Florida,” declared ‘expert’ Seth Davis.
But fans and followers knew, as quickly as this Gators team could fall — it could also get back up.
Mike White knew and hoped for the same.
“Maybe we have another positive chapter in us where our urgency will pick back up,” he said.
Florida did have another positive chapter, but only one. It easily dispatched the Bonnies, before falling to Texas Tech in yet another gut-wrenching game. One more time, hearts sunk as shots didn’t. Egor and Kevaughn missed game-tying attempts in the waning seconds. . . each falling just short.
And so to did Florida’s season.
Or did it?
Perhaps that ‘box’ didn’t contain the prize Florida fans expected. It certainly lacked a few parts, and maybe not all the pieces fit where originally intended. But despite what was lost and broken… a litany of injuries White called a “pain in the butt”….Florida assembled a season that will not be forgotten. And mostly for the right reasons.
“It was a long season, it was. It was a rewarding season in a lot of ways despite what all the exterior noise will tell you. Because this group grew so much during the season,” White said. “Last year we kind of were what we were and we had a really consistent, good year. This year we go from being a team that couldn’t guard a soul and we’re giving up a lot of points and not sure we really cared that much about it early in the season — we were fighting each other to see who could be leading scorer. This team has really grown. I’m proud of their effort. We’re a lot more connected than we were. I wish we had another month in the season, I really do.”
So do I. It’s been a gift!
And that ‘exterior noise’ you hear coach – that may be us eager fans shaking the box.