Florida fans got a look into the future – both immediate and distant – during Tuesday’s opening night victory against overmatched, but game North Florida. And when the final horn sounded, Florida’s 15-point margin was the culmination of some good, bad, ugly and beautiful.
As we’ll do after each game, here is a look at ‘em all . . .
THE GOOD: The future is bright indeed, and it was on full display Tuesday night, as the Gators showcased 10 different players – six of whom played their very first minutes for the Orange and Blue. Though Coach White hinted at perhaps ultimately needing to shorten his bench, the opening contest provided opportunity to see different players, lineups, talents and sets. And it was obvious this Florida team is more diverse in each of those areas. Kerry Blackshear appeared as good as advertised, recording a 20/10 night – while showcasing an offensive game at all three levels. “My goodness, he is a heck of a player,” White affirmed afterwards. Freshman Tre Mann earned his second consecutive start, and demonstrated an arsenal of offensive talents – shooting range, pull-up ability, lane penetration and a deadly floater. “He’s just a natural scorer,” White said following Tre’s 11-point outing. “He’s just got tempo, poise, a feel . . . an understanding of how to get a shot off”. And though Scottie Lewis has yet to seem as fluid offensively- his speed, athleticism, explosiveness and energy were all readily apparent. On more than one occasion Lewis grabbed a defensive rebound, turned and raced up the court – once, faster than his trailing teammates. It is hard not to be excited about the possibilities once Lewis becomes more familiar and comfortable with the offense, and learns to harness that energy into assertiveness. “It’s kinda been Scottie’s DNA to play with a crazy motor,” White said. Similar speed was shown by freshman guard Ques Glover, but perhaps some over-excitement hampered his productivity. Glover blew to the basket on a couple occasions, but twice failed to convert lay-ups. Finally, speed and skill seemed to be complimented with power – something Florida has lacked in recent years. Florida offered several variations of “big” lineups, a few which featured newcomers Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh. Though both were forecasted as being offensively ‘raw’ this season, each appeared ahead of the curve, particularly the former – who is long, athletic, and more developed on both ends of the floor than anticipated. Payne’s extraordinary length allowed him to snare 5 rebounds and tally two blocks, and made for an intriguing pairing with Blackshear. Jitoboh’s sheer size and what appears to be good hands/touch around the basket may dictate minutes for a player once presumed a redshirt.
THE BAD: In some ways, Tuesday offered an underwhelming debut for a team filled with preseason hype. The Gators struggled to shoot the ball, especially early – missing its opening 8 shots. And though this Florida team’s nucleus will likely be its rising sophomore class, each member of the trio struggled to some degree. Keyontae Johnson picked-up two early fouls and watched most of the opening half from the bench. As a result, last season’s ironman played only the sixth most minutes – limiting an efficient outing. Andrew Nembhard played 31 minutes and tallied 4 assists without a turnover. But he had a woeful shooting night, going 1-7 from the field. Perhaps more frustrating than his 0-3 stat line from the arc were those shots missed at close range. Nembhard appears physically bigger/stronger, so the hope is this was an anomaly – and that Florida’s point guard will be more adept at playing thru contact/finishing than he was much of last season. Noah Locke, who set a Florida freshman record for three-pointers last season, also had rough outing from the arc – going 2 for 7 from distance. He did have more than one that seemed halfway down – so we can chalk this one up to crummy luck! Still, the Gators combined for a meager 42% from the field and a woeful 20% from the three-point line. This must, and certainly should improve – by Sunday!
The Gators also had some leaky three-point defense – allowing too many open looks. To Florida’s fortune, UNF struggled to convert, but that will not be the case as competition improves.
THE UGLY: Florida has been out-scored in the second half by each of its opening opponents. Lynn bested the Gators 42-40 in the second stanza of its exhibition game, while UNF ‘won’ the final twenty minutes 37-35. It’s a trend Coach White noticed, and mentioned in his postgame press conference. “We lost intensity level probably 4 minutes into the second half – I’m not sure we ever really regained it. We’ve been outscored now in the second half by Lynn and North Florida,” he said. Certainly a portion of this can be attributed to the lull of playing with a large lead, as well as the shuffling and experimentation of lineups. Still, this team is too talented and too deep to concede twenty minutes to lesser opposition. And only 1-game into the season, Coach White has begun sounding the drum – play will be earned with sustained intensity, both in practice and games. “I told our guys in the locker room after the game – we will evaluate every day in practice and after every game in terms of how many guys we can play. I’m not sure we can play 10. . . I’m not sure we can play 11, or even 9 . . . if we are going to continue to have drop-offs,” he said. The makeup of this team suggests it will likely not suffer from inconsistent intensity or effort, but the learning curve for young players often involves an understanding of how hard each minute must be competed. It is a lesson that will hopefully sink-in by Sunday. And here’s hoping more shots will sink, too!
THE BEAUTIFUL: Kerry Blackshear is an absolute joy to watch, especially for Florida fans long pining for a skilled, scoring big man. The Virginia Tech grad transfer fundamentally changes how the Gators can and will play. Throughout the night Florida ran several hi-low sets, with Blackshear’s shooting range and face-up game forcing a big defender to the perimeter. This opened the interior for driving lanes, but more importantly – post passing/scoring, something Florida hasn’t seen in years. “I thought we did a really good job of recognizing post players with defenders on their backs and converting those passes,” White said — a comment that almost sounded foreign to fans. Florida not only converted the passes, but also some of the scoring opportunities. Florida produced 38 points in the paint – a figure matched only ONCE in 36 games last season. And the Gators left a bunch of points on the rim versus UNF, missing several at point blank range. So, what’s the ‘beauty’ in all this? Florida has a player thru which it can run offense, both as scorer and facilitator. It’s the Gators offense that will become a thing of beauty – even if it takes a few games. It will be one of balance, spacing and scoring at all three levels. Yup, even . . . and maybe, especially . . . the interior.