Gators’ Poor Defensive Performances May Warrant Schematic Changes

If before the season you said the Gators were going to be a top-25 offensive team in the country this season you probably would have taken that as a sign the year was going exceedingly well. Yes, you might aspire to a higher number than 24th where the team currently sits in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (adjusted meaning the metric accounts for quality of competition) ranking given the talent on the roster but you still would have taken that ranking with glee given the way Florida has operated offensively over the last few seasons.

Mike White’s era at Florida has seen the team average rankings in the mid 40s offensively and they peaked at 25th in 2017’s Elite Eight run. That makes Florida’s 24th current ranking on pace for the best scoring team in the White era and when the team got as high as 22nd before the Baylor game it was the highest the team had climbed during his tenure.

While offense hasn’t come easily to White’s teams, defense is another story. Every year under White the Gators have finished in the top-25 in adjusted defensive efficiency and they accomplished that despite having depleted frontcourts and a lack of size and athleticism, traits you normally see from top-25 defensive teams. Because White was able to get small teams with less athleticism than just about anyone in the SEC to defend at elite levels in the past you would have definitely expected this year’s team to defend at high levels, and for that reason, you probably would have thought their 24th ranking in offense would still be enough for them to be one of the top teams in the country in the mix for a national championship.

Shockingly, defense has been the weakness of this team, something that wouldn’t have been expected by anyone entering this season. After getting handled easily by Baylor the Gators dropped 67th in adjusted defensive efficiency, by far and away the worst the team has ever ranked under White.

Starting the season with poor offensive showings against Florida State, Towson, UConn, and Towson it was scoring the basketball that appeared to be the biggest issue with this team and they have made leaps and bounds on that side of the floor. Unfortunately, their improvements with the basketball haven’t been enough to make up for their defensive problems and strong offensive showings haven’t been enough to compensate for porous defensive ones.

This was put perfectly on display in the Gators three previous losses to Baylor, LSU, and Missouri. In these three games the Gators actually scored the ball efficiently with points per possession numbers that should win you most games:

Missouri: 1.14 PPP
LSU: 1.15 PPP
Baylor: 1 PPP

Getting above 1 PPP is a pretty decent cutoff point for what’s a good offensive game and what’s not and the Gators reached that point in all three games, far surpassing it against both Missouri and LSU. But still, they lost these three games.

And, with the exception of a triumphant comeback against LSU in the final minutes, they were pretty much blown out in each contest.

To score as well as Florida has recently but get blown out in these three games is baffling, especially for a team that has made defensive an identity and a cornerstone of their identity. Instead, here are the points per possessions they gave up defensively in these three games.

Missouri: 1.38
LSU: 1.18
Baylor: 1.18

Make no mistake, defense has been the issue for this basketball team and it’s something they will need to sort out if they’re going to compete at the top of the SEC.

Where should some of the blame go for the defensive problems Florida has had?

To find out, I scoured the film of Florida’s SEC games (plus Baylor) as well as every relevant statistic I could muster or get my hands on.

In doing so, something unmistakable did arise.

Using lineup analysis data something jumped out at me from the screen. First, it was an unflattering number from the Missouri game. It could have been an anomaly or just an unlucky night, so I looked at the LSU game.

Similar story.

Okay, what about Baylor.

There appeared to be a trend.

It was in regards to Florida’s defensive numbers when Kerry Blackshear Jr. was on the floor versus when he was on the bench. Using on/off lineup analysis data (some of the coolest modern basketball analytics) I was able to see an extremely troubling trend when it came to Florida’s defense when Blackshear was on the floor versus off of it.

Here are Florida’s defensive points per possession allowed in their recent three losses in lineups when Blackshear is on the floor and when he’s off.

Missouri

Blackshear On: 1.51 PPP
Blackshear Off: 1.00 PPP

LSU

Blackshear On: 1.125 PPP
Blackshear Off: 0.9 PPP

Baylor

Blackshear On: 1.24 PPP
Blackshear Off: 0.87 PPP

These Games Combined:

Blackshear On: 1.33 PPP
Blackshear Off: 0.92 PPP

So, as you can see, the Gators have actually defended extremely well…when Blackshear isn’t on the floor. When you look at the minutes with the big man Florida actually put together some of their best defensive stretches of the season against tremendous offensive teams in LSU and Baylor.

To make sure this wasn’t some kind of fluke or an unfair cherry picking of a stat I went through every player on the roster and there wasn’t anything close to as crazy a swing as when Blackshear is on the floor as when he’s off.

What helps defend these numbers is the eye test. Watching these three games the opposing teams were looking to exploit Blackshear in pick and roll or get switches where their guards could attack him. He’s been challenged to defend difficult actions by opposing coaches and while he has battled and done his best, it hasn’t quite been enough.

Florida was 16th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season.

Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, and Keyontae Johnson are all back. All should presumably be better defenders than a year ago when they were freshmen, especially Locke who is noticeably moving a lot better now that he isn’t playing on an injured hip like he did last year.

Florida lost KeVaughn Allen who was an excellent defender but they also don’t have Jalen Hudson anymore, a player who struggled on that end. Those two has been replaced by Scottie Lewis, one of the best perimeter defenders in the 2019 class, and Omar Payne, a shot-blocking freak.

That leaves the changeover at center where the Gators went from Kevarrius Hayes, one of the best defenders in the country, to Kerry Blackshear Jr. who is far, far more of an offensive threat but not someone who has been able to fill those shoes defensively.

One place Blackshear has struggled is when it comes to protecting the rim. Not particularly long and not a great leaper, Blackshear has never been known for his ability to turn away shots. Right now he’s giving up 57.9% at the rim defensively, a number that’s below average nationally. The returning Gators, and the coaching staff scheming their defense got used to Kevarrius Hayes allowing only 38.7% at the rim, an absolutely remarkable number made even more impressive by the fact he contested more shots than just about any center in the country.

Being used to Kevarrius Hayes and playing an aggressive style made possible by the way he could move his feet possibly hasn’t put Blackshear in the best positions defensively. The Gators are still playing an aggressive brand of defense where Blackshear often switches out to guards and in screen and roll defense he has to hedge and attack the ball handler before turning to sprint back to his original check.

This aggressive (and difficult) style of pick and roll defense has resulted in Blackshear giving up 1.1 PPP in pick and rolls in SEC play (plus the Baylor game), a number that has been the result of opposing coaches picking on Florida’s weak point.

Baylor, Missouri, and LSU also utilized Florida’s switching defensive scheme to their advantages, getting Blackshear in situations where he had to guard wings off the bounce on the perimeter. Blackshear gave up 1.14 PPP on these plays.

Is this all on Blackshear? Does he just need to be better?

Let it be known that effort isn’t the issue with him. He hustles and tries his best every time down the floor, and that’s after he has been expending a ton of energy on the offense side as one of Florida’s key contributors. Plus, after he’s set strong screens or made a play with the basketball he goes to the glass and grinds. Still, after shouldering a big offensive load he goes back to the defensive side and competes, getting after it and giving it his all.

The fact of the matter is that he’s a big man with high hips who moves his feet well, but not great. He’s not long for someone at his height and he lacks much of a vertical leap. He simply doesn’t possess the physical tools to be an elite defensive anchor at the center position.

Despite that, he’s being put in difficult defensive possessions. Actively switching onto guards like he’s asked to do is difficult, especially in the SEC where it seems like every team has an all-league scoring ball handler. Showing hard on screen and roll before recovering is a style of pick and roll defense normally saved for only the best of defensive big men but it’s something the Gators have played since they had Hayes executing the scheme.

Blackshear’s value on the offensive end is extremely high. I showed the defensive on/off numbers in the Baylor, LSU, and Missouri games and I should show the offensive ones too.

In those three games when he was on the floor the Gators scored 1.12 points per game and when he was off they scored only 0.91. Blackshear has drastically elevated what this team can do offensively and is an incredibly key piece of the basketball team. He should continue to play a ton of minutes and be a feature on the roster.

However, continuing to play hyper-aggressive defensive schemes simply isn’t going to work with Blackshear on the floor. The film and the numbers tell the same story. This isn’t to suggest he’s a bad defender, but he’s far from an elite defender and the Gators are asking him to do the job of an all-league anchor.

It would be wise for the Gators to start playing a more conservative style of defense. Right now they are aggressive on the perimeter which has made for a lot of dribble drives, plays that put Blackshear in a position to be a rim protector. They could start to play a bit more in the gaps, almost a “pack line” style of defense where perimeter players are tasked with digging down to help deter drives. They could also play more conservative “drop” pick and roll defense where Blackshear would sit more in the paint and not go hedge aggressively like he does now. This may give up more jump shots but it won’t result in as many defensive breakdowns as we’ve seen from Florida recently from the ball getting reversed off Blackshear’s pick and roll defense. They could also switch on the perimeter less and try to keep Blackshear from getting on an island trying to guard point guards in space.

There are situations where Blackshear can be an effective defender but right now Florida’s scheme is putting him in tough spots and it’s resulting in what is far and away the worst defense in the Mike White era. Making major adjustments at this point in the year could be difficult but just like White realized early in the season that his offensive system wasn’t working and overhauled it he might need to look at changes in his defensive philosophy.

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.