Florida Basketball’s First Half Versus Second Half Execution

Florida basketball had some serious ups and downs last season, and I’m not just talking about things in terms of the wins and losses on their schedule.

Even individual games seemed to be rollercoasters for the Gators and it wasn’t often where they, or their opponent, controlled things for most of a game or even a half. Florida’s suffocating defense would hold opponents to major droughts but their erratic offense was also known to go cold. They’d sometimes heat up and go on torrent 3-point streaks but then they’d have turnover spells that would lead to quick points for the other team.

More than any other negative narrative this season the idea that the Gators couldn’t hold a lead and struggled in the second half of games was the most prevalent. They had a lot of leads late in games that dissolved and that made for frustration throughout the fan base.

This got me thinking—were the Gators actually worse in the second half of games? Was there a stretch of games that Florida regularly struggled in and was there a stretch they regularly dominated? I had to try to find out.

The Method

I looked at the scores of games broken into quarters. Instead of just looking at first half and second half scores I decided to look at the numbers with the game divided into 4 quarters making for smaller stretches and more manageable data chunks to chew off. I took the point differentials (whether they led or trailed), added them all up, and got the cumulative point total for each quarter of the game in hopes of finding out if the Gators trended particularly good or bad in any regular stretch.

The Results

Compiling each quarter score differential from all 36 Gators games this year, here was the ultimate point differential:

First: +55
Second: +49
Third: +55
Fourth: -12

For starters, it’s crazy how similar the score totals are from the first three quarters, and it’s clear the last 10 minutes of games was where the Gators struggled the most.

Actually, let’s hold up for a second. While these numbers are interesting, they’re skewed by some big wins over mid-major competition where the Gators won games easily (though I will add, in their games against Charleston Southern, La Salle, North Florida, Mercer, and Florida Gulf Coast they were -7 in the fourth quarter of games. I’m chalking that up to the Gators playing their bench in garbage time). Because of that, let’s look at the numbers for games against high-major competition*.

*I’m including the NCAA Tournament game versus Nevada to increase the sample size, I think for this one season it’s totally fair to include them with the high-major talent.

So, against high-major competition:

First: +14
Second: +29
Third: +5
Fourth: -5

What struck me most about these numbers?

All Florida’s games were TIGHT.

Think about these numbers for a second. The Gators played 31 games against high-major opponents this year and the cumulative point difference was +33. That shows just how tight things were for the Gators this year.

As you can see, the Gators were stronger in the first half than they were in the second half but really, when you think about how small the point differential is over a sample size of 31 games, it’s not that large. Yes, Florida had their only negative points total in the fourth quarter of games but that’s a total of -5 over 31 contests and that really isn’t a lot.

Let’s go down memory lane for a second to look at Florida’s best and worst fourth quarter performances this year. For starters, the good stuff.

Best Fourth Quarters

+13 (Georgia, 62-52 win)
+9 (Texas A&M, 81-72 win)
+10 (Alabama, 71-53 win)
+10 (Arkansas, 66-50 win)

Worst Fourth Quarters

-13 (South Carolina, 71-69 loss)
-9 (Tennessee 78-67 loss)
-14 (Kentucky, 65-54 loss)

While those losses rung loudly due to their crushing nature the Gators actually had nearly as many solid fourth quarters as they did destructive ones. Was the idea that the Gators struggled late in games overblown? Perhaps slightly. The point differential shows it wasn’t their best stretch but the numbers aren’t devastating and when you look at big fourth quarters versus terrible ones they seem to mostly balance out.

Interesting Trend

As soon as I laid out the quarter-by-quarter numbers for every single something really struck me.

By the numbers, the third quarter of games was by far the most important.

When you look at Florida’s season on a whole, it didn’t seem like who won the first or second quarter seemed to matter with the final score and the fourth quarter had some inconsistencies to it as well. But the third quarter, that’s the one that seemed to matter.

In games Florida played in this year the team that won the third quarter was 26-7*.

*In 3 games Florida and their opponent tied.

The third quarter was a better indicator of who was going to ultimately win the game than even the fourth and when you look at who had the better first half it didn’t seem to matter all that much in the final score.

But wait, what if I looked at just the SEC schedule… I wonder what quarter would be the most important.

Ah, yup, when it comes to conference games, it’s definitely the fourth quarter that matters. In Florida’s SEC games this year the team that won the fourth went 18-3. Now we’re starting to really see how much late game execution matters.

Why Did Florida Struggle At Times In The Second Half Of Games?

In my observations one of the things that hurt the Gators in the second half of games was the lack of roster versatility both due to injuries and the limited skillsets of some of their players. Florida wasn’t able to play a lot of different ways and for that reason they weren’t able to change things up and make many adjustments mid-game.

For example, they played a ton of man defense and only played 8.3% of their possessions in a zone. Their man defense was definitely effective and I’m not suggesting they need to drastically change the good thing they have going but without other defenses to confidently roll out they became fairly predictable and their stout defense was able to be figured out in the second half of some games. Many of Florida’s opponents, particularly in the SEC, have multiple defenses they’re comfortable playing and the Gators often struggled when opponents changed defensive looks. A lot of times they’d figure out an opponent’s man defense in the first half and then be looking at a 3-2 zone in the second half which would give them trouble. While Florida saw a lot of those changes from their opponents they weren’t able to do much of it themselves.

Offensively the Gators were also limited in what they could do relating to the fact they didn’t have many offensive creators off the dribble on the perimeter and they didn’t have a post scoring threat. The lack of game breakers on offense made them fairly set reliant which isn’t in itself a bad thing but without offensive juice on the roster you’re just going to have a tough time scoring on tough defenses. In basketball the game always slows down late in the second half and Florida’s offensive limitations made them one of the worst late clock scoring teams in the country at 25.7% from the field (0.647 PPP for my analytics friends) and that certainly didn’t help them execute in the fourth quarter.

Final Thoughts

I think when you look at the numbers you can see the Gators weren’t as bad as you might have thought in the second half of games but they definitely let some slip. As well, the fact that in the SEC games Florida played in the team that won the fourth quarter won 18 of 21 times shows just how important late game execution is and it’s something I’m sure the Gators will be looking to get better in that area this offseason. Improved roster versatility with a healthier, more talented frontcourt featuring Kerry Blackshear Jr. and a (theoretically) 100% Gorjok Gak and some electric shot making entering the mix with Tre Mann should help at the end of games and the Gators should end up on the right side of more close ones this year.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.