GatorCountry brings you our first Florida Gators basketball podcast as we discuss the Gators upcoming games in the SEC.
Andrew Spivey and Nick de la Torre our joined by GC’s basketball guru Eric Fawcett as he breaks down the Mississippi State and Ole Miss games that will be played this week.
Andrew and Nick also Eric your questions on this basketball team as the Gators currently sit atop of the SEC basketball standings with an undefeated 3-0 record.
Andrew: What’s up Gator Country? Your man, Andrew Spivey, here with Nicholas de la Torre, and it’s a special basketball podcast. We’re starting it off. It’ll be a weekly segment with our man, Eric. Eric, first of all, welcome to the podcast. We appreciate it. Tell everybody a little bit about yourself and about this good ole basketball run.
Eric: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be on the podcast. I listen to you guys every week. It’s great to finally be on and to have some basketball talk in time that the Gators are the top of the SEC right now. They’re 3-0. They’re rolling, and it’s kind of an exciting year for basketball. Even though they took some losses we weren’t really expecting in the nonconference, which happens when you play a nonconference schedule as difficult as they did. They currently played the 22nd toughest nonconference in the country. Missing John Egbunu, having some guys sick, missing some front court pieces, and to still end up with some really quality wins, getting wins over Gonzaga, over a ranked Cincinnati team that a lot of people are really high on, knocking off Texas A&M decidedly to start the SEC season, even though they’re floundering a bit. They’re still ranked teams.
I’ll take a few bad losses, if it means that we have a lot of really top quality wins, and that’s kind of where we’re at. When it comes to Selection Sunday, and the committee’s looking at seeding, looking at things like that, they’re going to look at the quality wins category. That’s actually what kind of has hurt Florida in the past is that they didn’t really have any bad losses, but they didn’t have those big time wins to get someone excited about them. This year they have those wins already, and they’re going to have a lot more opportunities, with a really good SEC, with a lot of ranked teams. So this is an exciting time.
Nick: Obviously, the outing in the PK80 was great, do you think maybe the fans got a little bit carried away with expectations? You take Duke to the brink. You just have a really good showing out there, and then maybe reacted too far one way because of the showing out West, and then freak out after a couple losses.
Eric: Absolutely. I think it’s kind of true with a lot of things in sports, especially in college sports, college basketball. I feel like teams are never as good as people think, and they’re never quite as bad as people think. There’s what you’re seeing in college basketball this year, how many one seeds have lost games. Watching Michigan State, the #1 team, get just absolutely rolled by Ohio State, a team that a lot of people think is a bad team that’s down. You just kind of saw that. The team that everyone thought was a national title contender by a long shot maybe wasn’t quite as good as they thought, and Ohio State probably wasn’t as bad as people thought. It was all doom and gloom after Thad Matta left.
Anyways, for Florida to go to the PK80 and just shoot the ball so, so well, obviously at a rate that was just unattainable, something they weren’t going to keep up, it had everyone excited. This was not just Florida fans. This was national media, so it’s really easy for Florida fans to get carried away when people like Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg, these national college basketball writers, are saying, “Florida is a national title contender.” Yeah. People got a little bit carried away.
Nick: That’s true. When Jay tells me to feel some way, I feel that way.
Eric: Absolutely. The way he was talking about Chris Chiozza as one of favorite players in the country. Even at one point, I shouldn’t laugh at this, he started to say, “He needs to be looked at as an NBA prospect,” which has never been mentioned in his career so far. So, great for Chris. He had a great performance, but let’s also remember how differently that tournament could have looked if they weren’t able to steal a game against Gonzaga.
Jalen Hudson hit a bunch of ridiculous shots, and that was the only reason they were able to barely beat Gonzaga. Gonzaga, honestly, probably deserved that game. Florida stole it. Just think about how differently this Florida season looks if Florida loses that game to Gonzaga, doesn’t get to play Duke in the final, where obviously they lost, but it’s still kind of established them as a really good team playing #1 Duke really tight. That would make this season look a lot different, just hinging on a couple ridiculous three-pointers by Jalen Hudson in that game against Gonzaga.
People did overreact a little bit, but then I think people, obviously, overreacted the other way when Florida took losses to what I think is a very, very good Florida State team. Took a loss to a really good Clemson team, and took a loss to Chicago Illinois, who is probably going to be the favorite to win the Missouri Valley now that Wichita State’s out. That Loyola loss, that hurt, but the overreaction about this maybe being an NIT team, that was also an overreaction. It’s just the way the pendulum swings, and I get it. To have the highs of playing like that in the PK80 to losing at home against a mid-major, you’re going to have some swings.
It’s understandable, but Florida is obviously somewhere in the middle. They’re not as good as the team that was looking like they were going to run everyone off the floor in college basketball. They’re not as bad as a team that’s going to loss at home to a Missouri Valley team. It is what it is.
Andrew: Let me ask you this. For someone who is not as dialed into basketball as you, what was the difference in that? Was it just simple the three ball wasn’t falling? Is that the case? You hear Mike White talk about that. You hear Mike White talk about the toughness. What was the difference, if there was a difference, besides just the three ball?
Eric: The difference between those games in Portland and that week where we lost a bunch of games to Clemson and Florida State, that was still a defense and toughness issue. The threes obviously weren’t falling. That’s just obvious. If you look at the box score and see 15 or 16 threes falling for the Gators at 59%, and then you look at their losses, where they were shooting 20% and hitting four or five threes. That’s 30 points from the three-point line. That’s definitely there.
The real issue is the defensive toughness, where they’re just giving up way too many easy buckets on their own end, allowing teams to shoot more than 50%. That’s the difference we’ve seen at the beginning of the SEC season, where they have had that defensive toughness, and they’ve defended a lot better. Definitely defended in the post a lot better. Against Texas A&M, they just played incredible defense against those big guys like Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. They’re a lot more locked in and connected.
Let’s just remember too how many different pieces the Gators have. Two of the guys in their five or six in minutes are Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson, two guys who weren’t playing minutes for the Gators last year. They’ve got to get locked into how the Gators do things. Mike White plays defense a lot different than anyone else in the country. They are starting to get it. They didn’t have it against Clemson and Florida State, but they had it against Texas A&M.
Things are coming together on the defensive end. Toughness is so hard to quantify, because you don’t always necessarily see it, but there’s been a couple games that the Gators have almost let some leads slip, and they didn’t, because they had some veteran guys who kind of grabbed the game by the throat and wouldn’t allow Florida to lose. That, to me, is toughness. I’m seeing a lot more of that, so that’s really encouraging.
Andrew: Let me ask you the million-dollar question right now. That is the question everyone wants to know, and that is what does this team look like when John Egbunu comes back? Does John Egbunu put Florida over the top? In your opinion, is that the missing piece, is that one key defender in sight?
Eric: I should first just plug one of the articles I did write. I wrote a piece about what John Egbunu’s return will mean. That was earlier in December. It was a little while ago, but I would defer to that a little bit, for someone who might want to read a little bit more in. To summarize, absolutely he’s going to be a difference maker. He’s just so large and mobile. We’ll see when he comes back from a knee injury how mobile he is, but he was one of the best defenders in the country last year.
I took a kind of dive into the defensive metrics to just see how good of a defender he was, because, obviously, he passes the Eye-Test. The numbers really are remarkable. The way he was able to defend in the post made him one of the best post defenders in the country. His shot blocking numbers, and the percentages that other teams shoot around the rim when he’s on the floor are remarkable lower than teams are currently shooting with a Kevarrius Hayes, who’s a lot lighter of a framed guy. He’s going to just really shore that up.
One thing, I was talking to Nick about this the other day, what Florida doesn’t have right now is a guy in the low post that the guards can drop the ball off to that’s going to get a dunk. We saw it so many times last year with Kasey Hill, the way he’s able to just get just a step on his own defender. He gets into the paint. A big man has to step up, and John Egbunu’s there for the drop off pass. He takes one bounce, and he slams it home. Florida doesn’t have that right now. Kevarrius Hayes doesn’t have the hands to catch the passes. He doesn’t have the quick step to finish with power. It’s just not in his game.
What’s happening is, instead of these big men having to keep that in the back of their mind that behind them is John Egbunu when they go to step up and help, they can go with confidence, put their hands up high, and step up towards these Florida guards when they get penetration. If the ball gets dumps down to Kevarrius Hayes, usually teams have been able to rotate over and help defensively, and it hasn’t been an issue.
Obviously, John Egbunu not going to drastically change the offense, but he is going to help the Florida guards get a lot more space on the perimeter and opportunities to work when they get in the paint. He’s going to be a game changer on both sides. He will definitely be a difference maker.
Andrew: Let’s move on a little bit here. Florida sits atop the SEC, and they go on their Mississippi swing this week. Me, looking at it, I don’t follow it as much as you do, again, it looks like an easier week for Florida. You were telling me off the air with the podcast that you thought it was an easier stretch. Why is that?
Eric: Mississippi State is still a team that is kind of the younger side of the SEC. They’re not particularly accomplished, obviously. Their veteran guys have not really had a lot of success the last couple years, so they’re not a team that really knows winning basketball quite yet. Then you have Ole Miss, who’s still bringing in a lot of different guys. Their team looks drastically different than last year. Stylistically, they’re going to play a lot different than last year. They lost their point guard, lost their primary big man. They’re just teams that are both, I don’t want to say they’re rebuilding. They’re past kind of that initial rebuild phase, but they’re just not … They’re looking at next season. It’s kind of reflected a little bit in their records.
So this is about the easiest swing that Florida has, I would say, in the schedule this week. Mississippi State is 1-1. Their nonconference schedule looks really good, because they played a soft one. Then Ole Miss actually played a little more difficult of a nonconference schedule. What are they at? They’re 9-6. They had some bad losses to teams like South Dakota State. They lost to Illinois State in overtime, in a game that they just couldn’t defend anyone.
That’s kind of Ole Miss’s problem is they really can’t defend anyone, and that’s Mississippi State’s problem is that they don’t score the ball really well. Florida’s going to see kind of two really different teams. Mississippi State’s really going to get in your shorts and defend you, and Florida could really struggle to score. Then against Mississippi they could struggle to defend a really good backcourt. We’ll see two drastically different teams. It’s two that Florida’s favored to win, and hopefully can to keep on top of the SEC.
Nick: I’m going to go and take a question that I have, but it was also one that you got on the message board. This is from GatorRJV. This week Stone and Hayes seem like they kind of came alive. Is that maybe just fitting it, starting to get comfortable in those roles? As you mentioned, with Egbunu out, they’ve had to play different roles. What do you see from those two specifically, and what do you think we can expect from them moving forward?
Eric: Stone is definitely playing with a lot more confidence. I think a lot of it is how he’s been utilized. He’s kind of a tough guy to kind of plug in. He’s not one of those guys that you could pick him up, put him in any situation in college basketball, and he’d be instantly successful. He’s a big, wide built 6’8”, and he shoots the ball pretty well, but he’s not always just a catch and shoot guy. He can put the ball on the floor a little bit, but it’s not like you’re going to put him on the wing and try to isolate him or run him off screen. He’s just kind of one of those jack of all trade players, but he’s a master of none. Those guys can be a little bit tough to fit in sometimes. You might just be like, “I just wish I had a stand and shoot shooter, or a penetration guy.” Yes.
Mike White’s finally kind of used him, found a way to use him really well. I really liked how they used Keith Stone right in the middle of the zone. Florida’s starting to see a little bit more zone as teams know they might struggle to keep Florida out of the paint. A lot of zones that’s a soft spot, putting a guy in the high post. If you have a guy like Keith Stone, who can square up, shoot that 15-footer, or pass the ball really well, that’ll pick apart zones, and that’s what happened.
Then Kevarrius Hayes, he’s been a little bit of a whipping boy for fans, which I think has been unfair. He’s playing a little bit out of position. He could be a little bit more of a power forward, but he’s got to play centered against some really big guys. Looking at Florida’s schedule, going back to Portland, even Stanford had an elite big man, and Duke and Gonzaga had great big men. Texas A&M, Cincinnati, all these teams have great big men that Florida’s playing, and he’s always got to matchup with guys bigger than him.
Kevarrius Hayes is just such an elite help side defender. The way he rotates over to block shots and get steals is just ridiculous. He’s putting up these steal numbers and shot blocking numbers that are putting him into one of the top in the country. I think people just need to keep that in mind, that he is just such a good help side defender and such a good steal.
He’s 43rd in the country in block percentage, so he blocks 9.9% of opponent’s shots when he’s on the floor, which is pretty crazy when you think about it. If a team puts up 10 shots, he’s going to block one of them. He gets steals on 3% of the opposing team’s possessions, which is also pretty crazy. Just to think about how many possessions there are that he’s going to get steals on 3% of them on his own, not even as a team. Kevarrius Hayes has just really embraced that role as anchoring the defense as a help side defender, and he does it really well.
Nick: Here’s one you said that you wanted to address. It goes back to Billy Donovan. Again, Florida has players from all over the place, and Billy used to make it a point to schedule games, if not in that player’s hometown, in a region, so it would be easy for fans to come. Say like a Chris Chiozza, maybe play Memphis, or play somewhere. You play in Tennessee. You play at Vanderbilt. It’s kind of close, in that region. Do you have any insight as to does Mike White have a similar strategy? He’s getting into the part where he’s really going to be getting hands on with the schedule moving forward. Do you see that as a good recruiting tool? Do you see that as something Florida will continue?
Eric: The reason I wanted to address this question is just because it shows the way that college basketball has shifted. The question is can Mike White schedule these games in the hometowns of players, things like that. To be just honest, he can’t.
Obviously, he could schedule any game he wants. Florida does really well. They could go play wherever, but the way that the selection committee and the seeding committee looks at the computer metrics you have to be so tactical in the way you put your schedule together that you can’t be like, “Let’s just go play Memphis, because they’re a struggling team, and you don’t want to go play them on the road.” You can’t just say, “Let’s go to Virginia and play whoever to go play where Jalen Hudson,” I think he might be from there.
It’s just the way that you have to be so tactical in your schedule now. You see Florida playing so many of these neutral site games like in Portland or going to New Jersey to play Cincinnati. Then once you get all these neutral site games out of the way, then, obviously, you need to have a certain number of home games for TV, and you’re going to fill those games with usually teams like Incarnate Word and James Madison, some of these bye games.
Between these kind of big time games you want to play, like the PK80 and the Never Forget Classic, and then you have your home games that are bye games, you don’t really have an opportunity to go out and play these teams like a Memphis. Not an Incarnate Word, but not a Duke, somewhere in between. You just don’t really have the space to do that.
I think, for the kids that are instate players, we saw it last year when the O Dome was getting renovated, and they got to play some games around the state. I think you might see that a little bit more. Maybe they go play these semi home games, where they go play in South Florida or go play somewhere else like that, but in state. It’s just too hard nowadays in college basketball to go to play a game in the hometown out of state, just a player’s hometown, just because the numbers are so huge.
When you’re making a schedule, you’re sitting at a laptop, and you’re trying to calculate what a team’s RPI is going to be, and what it’ll make your strength to schedule, and how it will affect your ChemCom. It just becomes so much more than who should we go play, that would be really awesome if we could go to this player’s hometown. I agree. It would be awesome, but you just can’t nowadays, and that’s kind of sad that Mike White is not really going to be able to do that.
Andrew: One question we also had, and it’s something we kind of hit on a little bit, and that is right now, if you had to guess, when do you think Big John comes back? Do you think Stokes just goes ahead and takes that redshirt?
Eric: I’ll go Stokes first. I definitely think he’s going to take that redshirt. He’s a guy who’s just not really particularly in basketball shape is what I’m hearing. It’s what it looks like. For a guy like that to just kind of jump in at this point of the SEC season would be pretty difficult. I think he actually could probably contribute for seven or eight minutes a game if he were to play, but I just don’t know if that’s burning a year of eligibility. Then if you kind of think about it, you kind of artificially add him to next year’s class as a redshirt freshmen, and suddenly that class is looking even more special. They already have Nembhard and Locke and Keyontae Johnson, and then if you add kind of Isaiah Stokes to that freshman class. Chase Johnson is probably going to be in the mix for a redshirt too, just because of his illness and injury problems, and suddenly that class is looking even more dominant.
Big John, honestly, it’s tough to say. This is kind of along the timeline that he was going to come back some time this month. I kind of had looked early when they announced the schedule, saw this Mississippi week, and thought maybe he wasn’t going to come back until after it, just because of this being maybe a little bit of a weaker part of the schedule. I haven’t actually heard.
Nick: Maybe ramp him up a little bit in practice this week.
Eric: Yeah. It just makes you wonder what’s the strategy. Would you try to get him in against an Ole Miss, where he’s not playing humongous athletic players before he has to go against players like Kentucky’s frontcourt, or do you just try to save him for as long as possible, and then get him back in? Honestly, I don’t know. They’ve been really quiet about it, and that’s understandable.
It’s a little bit scary at the same time, because you’d love to hear a target date. That’s what everyone is asking about. They always ask for a target date, and I understand why teams don’t give them all the time, because that just kind of can set you up for disappointment. Unfortunately, I don’t really have Egbunu updates. It’s scaring me a little bit that we haven’t heard a lot, but like we talked about before, he would be a huge piece if he came back.
Maybe it’s even in the back of their minds that he could take a medical redshirt and come back next year. That has been discussed at least abstractly by some people. I would say it’s honestly going to be a possibility, if you find out he couldn’t come back till the middle of February or something. I think he might have to look at whether he’s interested in playing another year of college basketball. He would be a sixth-year senior. Maybe he’s ready to move onto the next chapter of his life by that point. He would at least be able to play a full season. Florida fans would love that. I’m still kind of monitoring it. I’m not totally sure what the read is yet.
Nick: It gets serious real quick. You play the state of Mississippi this week, and then Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, leading you into the SEC-Big 12 challenge. Obviously, you don’t play a guy out there if he’s not healthy, but you’d almost maybe want to give him a little test run. Maybe give him limited minutes, just to see where he’s at. Unless, like you said, this is something we’re not even close yet. Then we’re just sitting here talking about of the side of our necks, and he’s not even close to coming back.
Eric: Yeah. I mean, with it coming back on the knee injury that’s going to keep him out for so long so much of getting back into game shape is having the confidence to cut off that knee, or to jump off that knee into traffic. If you don’t have game action, you’re just not going to be able to really build up that confidence. I think they have to kind of, I don’t want to say put him out as soon as they can, but I don’t think they’re keeping him in the toolbox ready to deploy against a nationally televised game against Kentucky. If he’s ready sooner than that, I think they’ll try to get him out when he’s medically cleared and when he feels confident.
Andrew: Let me ask you this real quick, Eric. If you were Mike White and this staff, when would you want to have him on the court before you’re saying, “We’re good for him to play this year, or let’s just rest him the rest of the year.” You obviously don’t want to put him in the SEC Tournament, mess with the rhythm, that kind of stuff. Do you go to John and say, “Okay, what do you want to do?” If you’re Mike White, how do you handle that, if it was you?
Eric: You know what? I’m honestly having those discussions already, if I’m Mike White and the staff. I don’t know if they have. I’m not saying that based on any info I have, but if it were me, I’m already having those discussions. I think you just have to weigh in … I’ll backtrack a little bit, going back to John Egbunu’s play on the court, his game is 100% based on his size, his physicality, and his athleticism. If he comes back and his athleticism is cut by 30 or 40%, that is going to drastically change the way he plays basketball. Given his conditioning probably won’t be there to be a 26-minute a game starter, so he might even be coming off the bench or only play 14 or 15 minutes.
If he’s not coming back until February, to only give you those minutes, you have to weigh whether or not that is worth bringing him back or just getting a medical redshirt, seeing if he wants to play next year. I should know when I say that that currently Florida wouldn’t have space for him to do that, but I am strongly believing we’re going to have one more open scholarship, at least. We might have to discuss that on another pod.
Nick: Scholarship numbers always seem to have a funny way of working themselves out.
Eric: Even in basketball, when there’s only 13, they have a way of working out. Anyways, you just have to look at would bringing him back for 14 minutes a game for mid-February onto through hopefully March and April, is that worth it, or do you want to kind of bring him back, have a sixth-year senior, which is always a great luxury, and have him kind of anchoring your defense next year? To me, it’s approaching that point, and the fact that everything has been so quiet makes me think that maybe those conversations have happened. I would be very interested in investigating that route.
Nick: I think I have another one for you. You’ve touched on defense. I just want to pin it into these three conference games. Do you think Florida’s playing the kind of defense that Mike White wants as far as intensity and roles? Is there something lacking there? What are your overall thoughts about Florida’s defense so far in conference play?
Eric: Defense has been awesome. Again, I mentioned how good it was against Texas A&M. That’s where it was really at its best. The way that they were able to defense post was really special. Texas A&M a lot of times puts two guys in the post, opposite sides of the block, and they way that they move guys on the weak side to help over, to stack up against these big men was really intelligent and worked really well.
What happened a lot of times is they’d throw into the one big, and instead of sending a quick double team to that guy, they would get, I guess, a third defender to come double-team the other post who didn’t have the ball, so that if one post player had to go double on the other post it didn’t immediately leave the other guy open. It was really brilliant defense. It worked really well. It kind of showed against, only allowing 66 points against a team that can really score, even without their key pieces.
Missouri put up some points, but they had just hit tough shots, and that’s going to happen. To see Jordan Barnett have a career night, good for him. Great game, but Florida still actually defended quite well. You punctuated it with a great defensive effort on the last play of the game, which is sweet.
I would say Florida’s defending at a much higher level. The metrics are very kind to them. It’s looking a lot more like the defense we saw last year. I don’t mean that in terms of quality, but in terms of the style of defense they’re playing. Looks a lot more like it did last year, and, obviously, that was one of the most elite defensive teams in the country. I’m sure that’s what Mike White was trying to achieve even stylistically. They’re defending a lot better at the conference, and that’s why they’re 3-0.
Andrew: Got you. Eric, we appreciate it so much. This basketball is going to be a good podcast as we go all the way through April, hopefully through April. Make that March on through. Tell everybody where they can find you on Twitter, and then we’ll get out of here. We’ll see everyone again on next Wednesday.
Eric: You can find me @EFawcett7, same as my Gator Country username. You can obviously always interact with me there on the forums as well.
Andrew: That’s something we’ve been going very well with. Eric’s having his scouting report go up before the game, and then recaps of the games and all that good stuff. Nick, tell everybody where they can find the rest of us, and we’ll get out of here. We’ll see everyone next Wednesday.
Nick: www.GatorCountry.com for all your Florida Gator news. The podcast is there in audio and transcript form. You can find us @GatorCountry on Twitter and Facebook, @TheGatorCountry on Instagram. I’m @NickdelaTorreGC, and he’s @AndrewSpiveyGC.
Andrew: There you go. Nick and I will be back on Friday for our regular podcast, and then we’ll see everyone back on Wednesday with Eric for basketball. Guys, we appreciate it. As always, chomp, chomp. Go Braves.
Nick: You stay classy, Gator Country.