Active Hands Leading To Gators’ Defensive Success

High-octane defensive pressure has always been a hallmark of Mike White defenses but this year we’re seeing the Gators crank it up to another level. Currently 2nd in the country in steal percentage the Gators are plundering their opponents on 13.8% of possessions and forcing turnovers at a similarly crazy 24.6%. Florida has been a great defensive team even when shots go up for their opponents but seeing that nearly a quarter of the time the Gators don’t even allow a shot to get to the rim you can really see how they’ve been so successful on their end so far this season.

Constant pressure in the passing lanes has worked brilliantly as evidenced by their 6th ranked adjusted defensive efficiency number on KenPom, a number even better than the 24th they ended with last year though that number didn’t seem to match the eye test a lot of the time. Rugged defensive pressure has also really slowed down the opposition as Florida is 346th in average defensive possession length, meaning teams have to get deep into the shot clock to try to get a look against the stout Gator defense.

Theft By Committee

KeVaughn Allen leads the way in steals with 2.3 per game but he’s joined by a large group of guards that also love to come away with the ball. Andrew Nembhard (1.5), Keyontae Johnson (1.4), Keith Stone (1.0), and Deaundrae Ballard (1.0) all average a steal per game with Michael Okauru has chipped in 0.5 steals per game while averaging less than 10 minutes. The first five players mentioned are in all in the top 500 of college basketball when it comes to steal rate and if Okauru played enough minutes to qualify he’d be in the top 200 with his rate. Having multiple bodies on the court at once that are all looking to get steals is what makes turnover-forcing defense work at so far it has worked extremely well.

What Has Caused The Increase?

Some personnel changes have lead to the increase in forced turnovers. Though noted pickpocket Chris Chiozza and his 1.9 steals per game graduated Andrew Nembhard has been able to pick up that slack and there hasn’t been a big drop-off of steals from the point guard position.

The biggest difference has been at the 3 and 4 spots.

A bulk of the small forward and power forward position minutes last year went to Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov. Hudson’s 0.8 steals in 26.6 minutes was slightly below national average and Koulechov’s lack of length or explosiveness held him to 0.6 steals. Now you’ve got a lot more speed and length playing those minutes with Noah Locke, Deaundrae Ballard, and Keyontae Johnson taking over the minutes played mostly by Hudson and Koulechov and it’s providing a lot more team speed and length on defense and it’s coming up with a lot of turnovers. If Hudson finds his way into a more regular role we could see the team steal numbers go down a bit but it’s worth noting that though Hudson averaged 0.8 steals in 26.6 minutes last year he’s averaging 0.6 steals in 16.8 minutes this year.

How Are They Doing It?

There have been some noticeable schematic changes that have lead to the increase in forced turnovers and I think Coach White deserves a lot of credit for them.

First, the Gators have been pressing more. Well, a lot more considering they hardly pressed the past three seasons and are now doing it on 23.1% of possessions. It’s not a frantic blitzing press that relies on havoc and chaos to come away with loose balls but it’s a controlled ¾ court containment press that is more designed to bleed seconds off the shot clock but can also lull the opponent into a lazy pass that can be picked off by the 4-man sitting in the third level (Keyontae Johnson has been great at this).

Another change is that the Gators have been playing zone on 10.4% of possessions, another notable change from last year where we only saw zone of a handful of possessions. Not only have opponents only been shooting 23.1% against Florida zone defenses but they’re turning it over 26.8% of the time. Against West Virginia we saw a more aggressive zone force turnovers but we also saw a more passive zone work earlier in the season. Knowing the team can set up multiple looks is encouraging and keeping their opponents guessing has been really effective.

There has also been a noticeably different way the Gators have defended pick and rolls and it has lead to a lot of turnovers. Chris Chiozza’s height limited the way he could defend screen and roll last season and teams put Egor Koulechov into a ton of these actions defensively (one of the ways the Gators got absolutely picked on by a few of their smarter opponents) so that usually just meant a switch, or Chiozza could fight underneath with his speed. Now that the team has 6’4” Andrew Nembhard at the point and more length in the frontcourt you’re seeing the Gators trap more pick and rolls, sending both the initial defender and the player guarding the screen setter towards the ball handler with their hands high. Trapping pick and rolls has lead to turnovers on an astonishing 34.6% of possessions and has kept ball handlers out of the paint. Considering you couldn’t trap pick and rolls with the smaller defenders last year the steals that come from this defense are like found money and it’s energizing the defense on a whole.

Offense From Defense

We know the Gators have struggled with half court offense this year and it makes the fact they are getting so many steals that much more important. Getting points in transition off steals is Florida’s best offense right now and for that reason I think they need to keep the defensive pressure turned up high and continue to hunt for steals that turn into layups on the other end. Currently 20.8% of Florida’s shots come in transition and ideally for this team I think they’ll want to be up higher at 25% or more.

Michigan State Preview

The Spartans are humming offensively with the 5th ranked offense but they might have an Achilles Heel the Gators can exploit and it’s the fact that they can be loose with the ball at times. They’re 246th in offensive steal percentage, meaning they get the ball stolen from them a ton and that can play perfectly into Florida’s hands. Michigan State plays through their big men a lot so you could see the Gators gambling on steals on kick-out passes and point guard Cassius Winston is only 6’0” tall so I think we’ll see the Gators looking to trap him anytime they can. Winston is an excellent passer who might be able to exploit the Gators at times but with Michigan State’s offense being so efficient I think the Gators will have to keep looking for turnovers.