Mike White and his Gators basketball team tip-off the season Tuesday night with an atypically high-profile opponent . . . bitter rival Florida State. While no early season game is ever a true “must-win”, the sentiment of many Gators fans is “we gotta win this one”. And that’s because frustration has boiled over after four consecutive losses to a program most consider inferior, and in games many expected Florida to win. Heck, last year the Gators returned home from the PK80 Tournament as media darlings and 9-point favorites against the visiting Seminoles . . . only to be run out of their own building in a 17-point loss.
“I remember just being dominated in every aspect – – rebounding, running the floor, I think they even shot it better than we did,” recalled senior guard Jalen Hudson.
And he’s right – they shot better, though it wasn’t difficult considering Florida’s paltry 24% from the arc that night.
But alas, that game is in the past – a recent past Florida hopes to bury by ending an agitating losing streak. It’s an early opportunity Coach White welcomes, and one he hopes will have his team on edge.
“If I had a preference I might choose to do it this way,” White said. “Both of us, leading into the game and after the opener . . . immediately afterward . . . will have had the opportunity to hang our hat on a month of practice leading into that game that you would think would be at a higher level of practices—a bit more of a productive month than if both programs were to open up with a guarantee game”.
While this is far from a guarantee game for the Gators, it does set-up as a terrific chance to exorcise some demons and knock off a highly-ranked rival on the road.
But how does Florida do what it hasn’t done since 2013?
Let’s take a look at some keys to that ever elusive, but overdue victory . . .
- MAKE SHOTS: This is apparently easier said . . .or typed . . . than it is done. During the four-loss stretch, Florida has shot a hideous 21.5% from the 3-point line. YIKES! And the arc has betrayed some of Florida’s better shooters during the frustrating span. . . Egor/Allen combined for 2-13 last year; Cheese/Allen/Barry went 1-11 in 2016; Robinson/Finney-Smith/Allen/Chiozza totaled 4-19 in 2015; and Murphy/Frazier/Finney-Smith/Robinson hit only 3 of 17 attempts in 2014. Even the free-throw line has provided little reprieve from the shooting woes, with the Gators converting a paltry 64% in the losses. With 3 of the 4 losses being by an average of 3 points, Florida need not scorch the nets to possibly alter the end result. But its shooters will have to shoot . . . and make a few of ‘em. Thankfully, this Gators’ lineup offers plenty of options. Okauru, Hudson and Stone all shot at least 40% are the arc a season ago. Combine that with the hope a renewed KeVaughn Allen and known in-coming marksman, Noah Locke . . . and FSU will have a lot of floor space to cover. Though the ‘Noles have their typical length on the perimeter, it may not be as unyielding as past defenses. Valdosta State hit 40% of its whopping 37 attempts from the arc during a recent exhibition game. The Gators will not shoot nearly as many, but a similar conversion rate would be a critical trend reversal that could snap the skid.
- TAKE MORE SHOTS: College basketball isn’t a game of make-it/take-it . . . so if one team takes more shots, it perhaps is due to a disparity in turnovers or offensive rebounds. A season ago the ‘Noles crushed Florida on the offensive glass, grabbing 23 of its own misses, and turning them into 24 second-chance points. Seminoles forward Phil Cofer, led the way by collecting 6 offensive boards, and 12 total rebounds. A foot injury has sidelined the Noles’ top returning scorer and gifted rebounder, leaving a big hole that may have been exposed in early exhibition contests. Though way undersized, both West Florida and Valdosta State kept the rebounding margins close. The Seminoles will certainly look to rebound by committee, so Florida must box- out all over the court. Though Hayes may find himself futilely tied up with 7’4 Christ Koumadje, players like Keyontae Johnson and Keith Stone may have plenty of opportunity to clear the boards.
Turnovers may offer Florida additional opportunities . . . and some easy ones. The Noles have a tendency to play loose, a characteristic that resulted in 19 turnovers against Valdosta St. last week. The Gators have the length, speed and depth to harass FSU . . . and will certainly try to do so. Adding “More Shots” to the “Make Shots” equation should compute a Gators win.
- DON’T FOUL: Florida State struggled with its perimeter shooting a season ago, and there isn’t reason to think that will change dramatically this year. And so the Gators need not give easy points at the free throw line. Coach White will certainly be yelling for his players to “show hands” in effort to avoid the Bill Rafferty dubbed “nickle-dimers”. For those not familiar with the lingo, the Gators want to avoid cheap, ticky-tack fouls out on the perimeter. The Noles trio of Mann, Walker and Forrest represents a big, aggressive backcourt that is capable of attacking and drawing contact. If this matchup becomes a foul fest, Florida will mitigate is superior depth and shooting by allowing FSU to keep pace from the line.
- START FAST: There will be first game jitters for both teams, and the arena will be rocking for this opening outing against the hated Gators. Florida can vanquish its own nerves and silence the crowd with a quick start. White’s starting 5 consists of two juniors and two seniors . . . a group perfectly capable of contending with the initial intangibles. Their leadership can go a long ways in assisting freshman Andrew Nembhard, who . . . though vows he “doesn’t get nervous playing basketball” . . . may at least be a bit over-excited. And the sooner Florida can push past the ‘noles jinx and begin hitting shots, the better. FSU will be without its leader, so an early deficit will be hard for the Noles to overcome . . . mentally and on the scoreboard. A fast start could yield a winning finish.
- WIN THE BENCH BATTLE: Coach White has wondered aloud about how to use his depth and if it is possible to “play 13 guys”. The Gators rotated liberally in its exhibition game, and some strong performances came from players like Dontay Bassett, Keyontae Johnson, Mike Okauru and Noah Locke. Though minutes will certainly be more heavily slanted to the starters, Florida will rely on production from its deep and talented bench. Similarly, FSU has received solid contributions from its bench players in two opening exhibition matchups. David Nichols, Anthony Polite and Devin Vassell could all contribute, with the latter being a threat from the arc. Still, this is a battle that should tip Florida’s way. And if it does so significantly, the Gators may win going away.
- MATCH THE INSTENSITY: It has been readily observed that this game often appears “more important” to FSU . . . an appearance that belies reality. Perhaps the Noles enter with the proverbial chip on its shoulder due to a frequent underdog role, or maybe it because of a general perception that Florida is the better overall program. Clearly, none of that matters once the ball is tipped . . . after which the Gators have been too frequently caught flatfooted. Jalen Hudson acknowledged as much earlier this week. “I just didn’t feel like we were super prepared. Not prepared by the coaches, we were very prepared by the coaches, but I don’t feel like we prepared ourselves for the game,” he said of last year’s rout. Florida has often been the better team on paper, and seems to be again this time. But the game plays out on the court, and the Gators need to show up. Hopefully the frustration of the losing skid has irked the players as much as fans. If so, there is no way the Gators aren’t locked in.
- REMEMBER WHICH HOOP IS YOURS: I’m kidding. No, but seriously . . . try to remember.