The moment Lee Humphrey lets fly with another three-ball Joakim Noah instinctively turns to box out his man so he can grab an offensive rebound. Boxing out is what he’s been trained to do no matter who shoots the ball but the 6-11 Noah has so much confidence in Humphrey that he never even considers the possibility that his teammate might miss an open shot.
“When Humpty shoots the ball I always think it’s going in,” said Noah Monday afternoon before the Gators practiced to prep for their Tuesday game with Prairie View A&M (7:30 p.m., Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Sun Sports TV).
Whenever Humphrey shot in Florida’s 93-44 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga Saturday, Noah and his teammates knew the ball was going to be on target. They get a good feeling about the 6-2 senior from Maryville, Tennessee when he hits his first three-point try. Humphrey hit his first two Saturday so teammates started looking for him, a plan that worked to perfection since the Mocs’ game plan was to double down on Florida’s big guys. Noah scored just eight points and Horford got six, but Humphrey compensated by hitting five of his seven three-point shots for a season-high 15 points.
Humphrey’s long-range bombing was reminiscent of his Final Four efforts when his three-pointers opened up the inside for Horford, Noah and Chris Richard to dominate in the semi-finals against George Mason and then in the finals against UCLA. Against George Mason, Humphrey burned the Patriots for 19 points, mostly from three-point range. He came back to score 15 against UCLA including three three-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half to break that game open.
When Humphrey is on his game, the Gators become that much harder to defend. Let Humphrey and either Taurean Green or Corey Brewer get a hot hand at the same time on the perimeter and the Gators are next to impossible to stop. That creates the ultimate dilemma for opponents. Do you play the Gators straight up? Do you double down on the inside? Can you risk letting the bombers set their feet and load up from three-point range?
“I think that when you’re a coach and you’re looking at film on us and you’re saying how are we going to beat the Gators?” Noah said. “We can’t trap the bigs. We can’t leave those guys on the perimeter open. What do we do to beat these guys?”
The Gators have a scoring option at every position. Last year the starting five of Noah, Green, Horford, Brewer and Humphrey all averaged in double figures. Each of the starters is capable of leading the team in scoring so that makes it double jeopardy for a team with a game plan to take one or two of the Gators out of their game.
Humphrey is a critical element in the Florida offense because he’s the pure shooter that can stretch the defense and he is the most consistent weapon from beyond the arc. When he’s on his game the choice is to let him shoot or shut him down. If he shoots there’s a good chance he knocks the three-ball down since he’s a career 43.4 percent shooter from three-point land. Try to take him out and Noah (6-11), Horford (6-10) and Richard (6-9) go one-on-one on the inside.
Everybody knows that Humphrey can shoot, yet for reasons that Noah can’t understand teams either lose track of where Humphrey is on the perimeter or else they simply choose to guard him loosely.
“I’m always on edge and I’m going to try to go to the offensive glass every time but in the back of my mind I’m like you guys are stupid, why would you let him shoot the ball?” Noah said with a laugh. “Like what a mistake and you’re double teaming and I see Humpty and I see the pass going to Humpty and Humpty’s jumping up and down … his swagger is so crazy, ‘just please give me the ball so it can go up.’
“I just don’t understand why he’s so open all the time. You know what he’s going to do. It’s not like he’s going in there and dunk on you or something. He’s going to shoot the three-ball.”
As good as Humphrey is from the outside, he’s not exactly a ball hog. In four years at Florida he’s never taken more than 14 shots in a game. Like his teammates, he will pass up open looks to find someone with a higher percentage shot. Last year the Gators were the only team in the country with all five starters averaging in double figures and with all five starters registering at least 70 assists.
That kind of unselfish play showed Saturday when the Gators played their best and most consistent game of the season against UTC. Florida shot 54 percent from the field and the Gators had 23 assists for their 32 made shots, a phenomenal number. The Gators are averaging 21.5 assists per game, shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from the three-point stripe.
But the Gators didn’t just show up on the offensive end of the court. They turned in their best defensive effort of the season, completely neutralizing UTC’s three-point based offense. UTC came into the game averaging 33 three-point shots a game. Against the Gators, they were able to get only 20 shots off and they made only five. Keddric Mays, who came into the game averaging 14 three-point tries and 22 points per game, only got five three-pointers off and he scored only five points.
By the time the Gators were crowned NCAA champions last year Florida had become the best defensive team in the nation. Through their first four games of the season the Gators look like they have carried that defensive intensity over into this season. The Gators have held four opponents to 37.3 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from the three-point stripe. Florida is averaging 9.3 steals and 6.3 blocked shots per game.
“I’m really proud of the way we’ve been playing so far but we’ve still got a long way to go,” said Noah. “Saturday’s opponent was the best that we’ve played so far but we definitely played our best basketball Saturday even with me and Al not scoring a lot of points. That just goes to show you how deep and just how tough this team really is.”
It is a good start for the Gators but it is a long season, a grind that could take as many as 40 games to complete. Noah says the grind won’t get to the Gators as long as they keep the proper perspective. Perspective means controlling the things that Florida can control such as staying unselfish and giving maximum effort every night on both ends of the floor.
“We have to stay humble and stay hungry,” he said. “As long as we know how capable we are to play, it’s not about our opponents. It’s about us.”
And with Noah, it really is all about the team. He would have been the first player taken in the June NBA Draft but he came back because being a part of the Florida basketball team is far more important to him than million dollar contracts and the life of a basketball gypsy over a 100-game grind.
“I realize that being on the court is what makes me happy,” he said. “I realize that a lot of people wanted me to make decisions in my life and I feel I made a smart decision coming back. I’m really thankful to be here and be part of this team and this team is what makes me happy in my life.”