When the Florida Gators came out of the Christmas break with more injuries and illnesses than they went into it with, it almost seemed like a sign that this season was destined to continue going downhill.
Florida won its last two games before the break, but there was no way to overlook the four ugly losses in the five games leading up to that. For whatever reason, it was just not the same team that started the season.
The offense had lost all confidence and momentum, and the defense simply wasn’t good enough to make up for that.
The Gators went from one of the top five teams in the country to completely out of the national spotlight (or in it for the wrong reasons) in the blink of an eye.
“If you go back to the Duke game, go back to the Clemson game, we had so many opportunities,” said head coach Mike White. “If you win one or both of those games, do you have the lack of momentum heading into Christmas that we had? Do you have that aura around your program that we had? I don’t know. I think things could have been different. But we’ve had this struggle, of course, with certain areas that have kind of come to the forefront. I thought that was something we were dealing with a lot heading into the break.”
While it didn’t seem like the Gators benefitted from the break, having to play without the inside depth of Gorjok Gak and with an under-the-weather Jalen Hudson, they were still able to make the most of it.
The players who were healthy got rejuvenated and some time off the court helped them find their shots and refocus.
That has been evident in two SEC wins over Vanderbilt and 11th ranked Texas A&M over the past week.
One player who may have gotten the most out of some time off is graduate transfer guard Egor Koulechov.
Over the first four games of the season, he was an unstoppable force as he averaged 21.8 points per game and it felt like every shot he took was automatic.
Then, the shots just stopped falling. He went just 5-for-29 from the three-point line over the next six games and never finished with more than 12 points.
He wasn’t himself anymore. Some of that had to do with decreasing confidence, some of it had to do with pain.
According to White, Koulechov has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his foot. He will likely have to fight through the pain for the remainder of the season, but the break allowed him some much-needed rest.
Koulechov has led the Gators in scoring in each of the two games, with 22 points against Vanderbilt and 19 at Texas A&M. He had a perfect 10-for-10 performance from the foul line against the Commodores and went 5-for-6 from long range to help Florida to 17 three-pointers against the Aggies.
“He got off to such a hot start, and when you are making shots at the clip he was making them early in the season, you can get away with making some hard ones because you are in such a good rhythm,” White said. “And then you can fall into a trap of continuing to shoot hard ones when you are not shooting it as well. I think some of that affected him negatively, and I think he’s doing a better job of picking his spots, shooting good ones and showing us all how good of a shooter he is. When he’s open and his feet are set, he’s one of the best shooters in the country.”
Another couple of guys making strides as of late are junior center Kevarrius Hayes and redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone.
Both of them had their best games of the season on Tuesday, and the Gators need them to continue playing at a high level.
Hayes put on an all-around performance at Texas A&M as he finished with eight points (making all four of his field goal attempts), seven boards, five blocks and four assists.
White said he believes his increased production may be stemming from an increased comfort level.
Early on in the season, the coaching staff had him playing more on the perimeter than the interior. Now that he is playing more on the interior where he is comfortable at, he feels better about himself and is able to focus more on his strengths.
As for Stone, he finally showed what he’s been showing in practices for weeks with his 19-point, five rebound performance.
He played the best game of his career, and his breakout is something White had been waiting on and expecting for a while. It is a major advantage for the Gators when Stone is playing well.
“It’s what we see a lot,” he said. “And so, it was no surprise to our staff or to his teammates … He’s gotta continue doing what he’s done to play that well in a game. He’s gotta be great today in practice, gotta be great tomorrow in order for more and more of that to carry over in the games.”
Florida may be getting things back on track and off to a hot start in conference play, but that could be in danger as it travels to Missouri on Saturday.
The Tigers are another team that really took advantage of the break, as they suffered a tough loss to Illinois before Christmas, but bounced back with a 79-68 win over South Carolina after 11 days off.
Three players scored 19 points or more in the game as Missouri drained 14 of its 24 three-point attempts.
A win over the Tigers on the road would be huge for Florida as it continues to rebuild its identity.
“Last night was one of the best performances I’ve seen in college basketball, the way they played at South Carolina,” White said. “Certainly, one of the best performances in our league at this point, if not the best. To go to South Carolina and play the way that they did. And they play extremely hard. They’re very disruptive defensively. It’s going to be an enormous challenge for us.”