Riding a scorching hot shooting night where they hit 15 threes on 22 attempts, the Gators controlled their quarterfinal matchup of the Phil Knight Invitational with a 108-87 win over the Stanford Cardinal. They will go on to play the winner of #16 ranked Gonzaga and Ohio State in a matchup Friday evening. In the post-game press conference, coach Mike White was joined by three key players from tonight’s game: Chris Chiozza (14 points, 11 assists), Egor Koulechov (26 points, 5-5 from the 3-point line), and Jalen Hudson (17 points, 1 block, 1 steal).
Since the announcement of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament, it has been billed as one of the greatest early season tournaments ever constructed. Coach White recognized this: “Great to be here, great event… I can’t imagine that there’s been many events like this… it’s an honor to have the University of Florida here.” He also acknowledged how much of a learning experience these kinds of events can be for teams. “It’s going to be huge for us…Whether you go 3-0 or 0-3… at the end of this event… we’re going to be much more familiar with where we are and who we are and what we need to work on… you usually find more out about yourself against the highest level of competition.” Speaking of the quality of competition, White was very complimentary of the Cardinal team. “Stanford runs good stuff and they execute well. They have good shooters and Reid Travis is an absolute handful.” However, regarding the 54% from the field Stanford shot, he firmly stated: “We’ve got to guard better.” Coming off a game against New Hampshire that left the team dissatisfied despite the win, playing well against better competition certainly helps the confidence of the team.
After scoring in triple digits for the third time in four games to start the year, offense was a hot topic. It’s hard not to want about points when the Gators shot 58% from the field, 81% from the free throw line, and 68% from three. Coach White put it bluntly when he said: “I’m not sure how much better we can play offensively.” When asked about the pace the Gators want to play at, Chris Chiozza remarked: “We always try to use our speed and our athleticism. That’s where we’re at our best.” He also commented on why the Gators are so hard to guard: “We have so many threats… we do a good job of being unselfish, making the extra pass, and get a lot of open shots that way. Just playing as fast as we can.” If Florida can continue to play at the breakneck speed they were at tonight, its no secret they’ll be able to run almost any team off the court. Coach White was known for playing fast while at Louisiana Tech, so I’m sure he is ecstatic with the wheels his team now possesses.
Egor Koulechov was back to his deadeye shooting ways tonight, hitting all five of his looks from beyond the arc. Whether pulling up off the dribble, curling off a screen, or trailing the play in transition, it was all working for him tonight. Asked about how he and the team shot the ball so well tonight, he answered: “When you share the ball like that, you’re going to get good shots, and you have a high percentage chance of hitting them.” He was also asked about how he has been feeling in Florida since the transition, and he happily offered: “I’ve been feeling, honestly like, really comfortable with these guys from day one. Coaching staff, players, they’ve done a really good job of helping me out to adjust from another school. They’ve made the transition easier for me. And that’s… how we play on the court. Guys play unselfish, and it’s fun to be around that.”
Though the offense has been effective to start the year, White has continuously preached to the roster that they can’t just rely on big offensive performances to win games. “Last year’s team could find a way to win because they were elite defensively. This is a different team. We’re far from elite defensively. We are definitely more talented–our ceiling is higher offensively.”Chiozza also commented on the desire to improve defensively, adding: “We know we’re a great offensive team… we don’t want to…have to score 100 points. We want to hold teams to under 50.” The Gators have plenty of tough competition waiting for them in this tournament and in the rest of the non-conference schedule before taking on the SEC so there is definitely time for the Gators to improve on their side of the floor and get to the level of defensive execution that White and the rest of the coaching staff aspires to.
With Kevarrius Hayes out tonight with a suspension for violating team rules, the Gators were forced to send out a smaller starting lineup then they normally would. Instead of traditional center and power forward, the Gators put out Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, and Keith Stone, effectively putting out 4 smaller perimeter players and an undersized center in Stone. Though guarding on the interior and rebounding can suffer when you play small, Coach White is a big fan of the offensive implications of that group: “It gives you 5 guys with the floor spaced that are really difficult to defend because they can all drive it, they can all shoot it, and they can all pass it.” I’m sure we’ll see more small-ball from the Gators this season, especially until John Egbunu comes back, so you can get used to some of these run-and-gun lineups. Egor Koulechov was probably faced with the biggest challenge in this small lineup, giving up lots of length and bulk to 6’8”, 245 pound Reid Travis. When asked about what he thought about playing with Hayes out he stated: “It’s a next guy up mentality… we did a good job today of rallying around each other and stepping up.”
It’s a short turnaround in a tournament like this, and the Gators are back in action in less then 24 hours. How are they going to approach it? Chiozza has the answer: “We want to just come out every night and show them that we’re a great team and play as hard as we can… leave everything out on the floor.” Jalen Hudson had one of the best quotes of the day when asked about his philosophy: “We’re just taking it one game at a time. We’re not even sure who we play next.
We’re just trying to win every possession. And hopefully if we win more possessions we win the game.”
Make sure to watch the Gators on Friday night in the semifinals of the tournament, and keep it locked to Gator Country for all your Gator basketball needs!