Fixing Florida Basketball’s Achilles Heels

Part of building a program is not only developing big picture ideas and culture but finding small flaws in on-court performance and tidying them up as you progress. I did an article last year around this time addressing some of the Achilles heels of the ’16-‘17 team, pointing out some of the nagging issues the Gators had and talking about how they could be fixed moving forward. I thought I’d do that again by looking back at the Gators’ losses from last season to see what we could extract as possible Achilles heels and how they could fix those issues moving forward.

Florida 84-Duke 87 (November 26)
Achilles Heel: Holding a lead.

Unfortunately, this is something we’re going to see a few times in this article. Since I’ll probably be addressing this a few times, I want to introduce a tool to you available to me through analytics site KenPom called win probability. It factors in time and score to tell you at any given time throughout a game what each team’s win probability was. As you probably (unfortunately) remember, the Gators held a lead at the half and that lead ballooned to as much as 74-57 with 10 minutes on the clock. At that point, the Gators’ win probability was 97.2%. Even as the lead started to dwindle, their 84-79 lead with possession of the ball with 3 minutes left gave them a win probability of 86.2%. And, as we know, they weren’t able to hold on. Even though Duke was a great team the Gators need to be able to hold on to a 17-point lead with 10 minutes left. The offense was largely the problem as their lead dissolved as ball movement completed stagnated and they were left chucking up low percentage jumpers at the end of the clock. This wasn’t just a one-time thing for the Gators which is what I find really concerning. Losses to Loyola-Chicago, Clemson, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Vanderbilt all saw Gators with a 70% or more win probability for most of the second half before letting those leads bleed away. If you’re keeping track at home, that is all our SEC losses other than to Tennessee and Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. Not only did we hang in every SEC game, we were seen as the heavy probability favorites to win in the second half and let them slide. We won a lot of games in the SEC last year, but imagine how many we would have won if we held on the second half leads where we were at a high probability of winning. Florida must get better when playing ahead this upcoming season.

Florida 66-Florida State 83 (December 4)
Achilles Heel: Dealing with size.

So, shameless plug, but if you want to hear me get more into this you can see an article Gator Country published the other day where I discussed this rivalry and how the Gators can get back into the win column. But anyways, when the Gators played the Seminoles last year I think the Gators had the edge in skill when you match up the rosters. The problem was that the Seminoles had the major advantage when it came to size and athleticism, and they showed that when you can physically dominate a game at multiple positions that the most talented team doesn’t always win. It wasn’t the size on the inside that gave the Gators the most problems, it was the size on the wing. 6’6” Terance Mann was getting to the rim at will against Florida’s smaller perimeter defenders and Chris Chiozza had 4 turnovers and 0 field goals against a lengthy backcourt where multiple players 6’5” and taller took turns bothering him. This is an area where the Gators should be better this year. Andrew Nembhard adds some valuable size to the backcourt while Keyontae Johnson should provide the shutdown ability on the wing the team lacked last season. Getting Chase Johnson also adds some more useful length and athleticism they could use in matchups like these. Playing Florida State in the first game this season should be a great measuring stick of how the Gators can handle length and athleticism.

Florida 59-Loyola-Chicago 65 (December 6)
Achilles Heel: Scoring in different ways.

Loyola-Chicago making a Final Four last year at least validated that this loss wasn’t as bad for the Gators as it may have seemed in the moment, but this was still a loss that was fairly frustrating as the Ramblers’ defense completed stifled Mike White’s attack. Florida went 2-19 from three in this one which really illuminated a problem and that’s that the Gators might be a bit too reliant on the three-point shot. Florida was the 75th most reliant team on the three in college basketball last year getting 35.9% of their points from behind the arc. The 45.4% of their points they got from two-point range was 294th in the country. Loyola-Chicago played a style of man defense called “pack line” where you sag into the paint and give up three-point shots as a sacrifice for defending the rim at all costs and since shots weren’t falling for the Gators, that defense looked incredible. The Gators will need to find a way to diversify their scoring and not be so reliant on the three because as we all know, threes can dry up. Getting Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson should provide some more avenues to score on the inside but I think it’s on guards like Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen to get into the paint with their drives and get points at the rim instead of settling too much on pull-ups from the outside.

Florida 72-Ole Miss 78 (January 13)
Achilles Heel: Defending high-scoring guards.

This game saw a 10-7 Rebels team that looked beatable pick apart Florida’s defense with their speed on the perimeter. Markel Crawford (17 points), Deandre Burnett (20 points), and Bruce Stevens (22 points) used their ability to create off the dribble to blow by Gator perimeter players and get easy points at the rim. Having those three threats on the floor showed that the Gators weren’t prepared to handle that many scorers from a defensive standpoint as Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov couldn’t match the foot speed of Crawford and Stephens while Chris Chiozza really struggled to stop the powerfully built 6’2” 200 pound frame of Burnett driving to the hoop. Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson should help out with a bit more size on the perimeter this season but as a few different scenarios showed last year the Gators could have trouble stopping talented ball handlers if they don’t improve.

Florida 60-Georgia 72 (January 30)
Achilles Heel: Defending quality low-post scorers.

Okay, I probably could have picked a couple different games for this point of the Gators giving up career games to bigs, whether it was Marvin Bagley for Duke or Johnathan Williams at Gonzaga or Reid Travis at Stanford. They all bullied Florida inside. But I decided to choose this game against Florida and Yante Maten’s highly-efficient 20 points because it was an example of a game where Florida was much better at most positions but allowed a bad matchup in the post to really dominate the game. When Maten got the ball in the post he dictated everything and it allowed Georgia to play at the pace they wanted and it got the Gators completely out of rhythm. Will Chase Johnson, Isaiah Stokes, and a healthy Gorjok Gak help when it comes to locking down post players? It should, but this is something to monitor going forward.

Florida 50-Alabama 68 (February 3)
Achilles Heel: Interior scoring.

Florida’s offense looked really badly in this one and it was largely because of the way Alabama left the Gators’ frontcourt players open on the inside to majorly help on the guards, daring the Gators to dump it inside and hope for a bucket. Even though they dared the Gators to try to get the ball inside for easy scores, Kevarrius Hayes finished this one with a single point while Egor Koulechov, Dontay Bassett, and Gorjok Gak all struggled on the interior as well. It’s not the Gators need major production from their interior guys but they definitely need players who can take a drop off pass from a driving guard and finish through some contact with a layup. I’ve already pointed to the incoming help of Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson as some answers multiple times this article and I wonder if their talent and size will be enough or if this is a schematic adjustment that needs to be made. Coach White hasn’t had many great big men in his time as a college coach and he may need to make some adjustments in the game plan to help his bigs get the ball in areas where they can be successful.

Florida 68-Vanderbilt 71 (February 17)
Achilles Heel: Playing in Memorial Gym.

The Gators have gotten dominated in Nashville the last three seasons going 1-6 against the Commodores and with the SEC being as tough as ever they can’t afford for trips to Vanderbilt to be instant losses. Vanderbilt is going to be a more talented team than usual with an unexpected elite recruiting class but they won’t have the veteran savvy you’d usually see from them. Could it be that their reliance on threes has hurt them when playing the Commodores? I think it plays a role. Shooting threes on that atypical theatre-like court could be really difficult and the Gators have not shot well there recently. Going back to a previous point made in this article, the Gators need to find a way to win when the long ball isn’t falling and that should help them against a Vanderbilt team they have struggled with.

Florida 72-Arkansas 80 (March 9, SEC Tournament)
Achilles Heel: Playing in the SEC Tournament.

Mike White has done some really great things in his time at Florida. Playing in the SEC Tournament has unfortunately not been one of them. Despite being a good seed the past three years the Gators are 1-3 in the SEC Tournament and taking a firm loss to an Arkansas team the Gators beat by 15 points earlier in the season shows how much they have struggled on that neutral floor. Now, I know what you might be thinking, it hasn’t been that important since the Gators have been comfortably in the NCAA Tournament the last few years. Heck, you might even be happy they lost early in the SEC Tournament so that they could get some more rest for March Madness. However, getting extra wins on a neutral floor would be huge for NCAA Tournament seeding and had the Gators been able to beat Arkansas they probably would have been a 5-seed and would have avoided a really good Texas Tech team in the second round. SEC Tournament games will likely mean NCAA Tournament seed lines given the quality of talent and the Gators can’t continue to struggle here.

What do you think some of the Gators’ Achilles heels could be and how do you think they could fix them?