It’s no secret that Florida will be drastically rebuilding their defense this season. After four straight seasons as a top-25 defense (each of Mike White’s first four seasons at Florida) the Gators struggled mightily in 2019-20, finishing ranked 61st nationally. When you look back at Florida’s season that was largely disappointing given the sky high expectations, much of it falls on the defense. The Gators were 27th in the country in offensive efficiency, a number that doesn’t tell the whole story given the fact that they were in the 50s in the first week of the season before drastically improving and spending the last 6 weeks of the season as a top-15 offense.
Looking at recent college basketball history there have been a number of great teams with offenses in the 27th ranked range.
There have been very few in the 61st ranked defensive range.
With the known importance of defense and White’s reputation as a defensive minded coach there is no question getting stops will be the focus of the Gators this upcoming season as they look to get back to success on that side of the floor. Where the rebuilding of Florida’s defensive culture could begin is at the center position where the Gators are likely getting back to the style of five-man White has had success with in the past.
When White came to Florida he had big John Egbunu patrolling the paint. With him as the starter the Gators were 14th and 5th in the country defensively, though those teams also featured great defenders in Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith, Chris Chiozza, and Justin Leon.
Then Kevarrius Hayes took over the role and his ability to move his feet and contest shots brought the Gators to 24th and 16th ranked defenses despite the fact the Gators lacked the same level of defenders around him with Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov often needed to play power forward despite being undersized.
Then 2019 came along. Florida had one of the players who was considered to be one of the best defensive players in the 2019 recruiting class in Scottie Lewis, adding him to the mix of Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, and Keyontae Johnson who were key pieces in the defense that was ranked 16th in the country prior. However, the player at the center spot drastically changed with Kerry Blackshear Jr. coming to town. He didn’t have the shot blocking ability of Egbunu or Hayes, and he also lacked the balance and lateral quickness to hedge pick and rolls like those two centers did.
Putting all of Florida’s defensive issues on Blackshear would be entirely unfair to do, though it’s hard not to look at the team a year ago that started…
…and finished 16th, to then…
Kerry Blackshear Jr
…who finished 61st and not say the change at center had an impact of epic proportions. KeVaughn Allen was a fantastic defender, one that was superior to Lewis, but that dropoff isn’t cavernous. Additionally, the three returning starters going from freshmen to sophomores should make them all better defenders so again, it’s tough not to focus on the center spot.
What made the center position notable defensively is that Mike White’s defensive scheme is extremely demanding on centers. For starters, he loves to hedge pick and rolls. To hedge means to have the player guarding the screener (usually the center, like Blackshear) sprint out to the level of the ball, turning parallel to the baseline and forcing the ball handler to head back towards center court before having the ability to attack. After the defender hedges, he has to sprint back and recover to his man. That style of defense requires a big that can sprint out and match up with a guard for a few dribbles before sprinting back and recovering to his man. Kevarrius Hayes was an absolute master of this challenging form of pick and roll defense and Blackshear, well, struggled at times. There was no lack of effort or anything like that from Blackshear’s end, he simply didn’t have the agility to perform this style of defense at a high level.
When playing hedge and recover Blackshear gave up over 1.1 points per possession, a dangerously high number considering how prevalent pick and rolls are in modern basketball.
Another part of Mike White’s defense that is demanding on centers is the fact that one of their core philosophies is to take away three-point attempts, and that means running players off the line. The Gators are incredibly aggressive closing out to shooters which is going to allow drives, putting pressure on their centers to rotate over to the driver and contest the shot. Again, this is where Kevarrius Hayes was excellent. His ability to diagnose drives and then move his feet to meet the driving player was outstanding, and he also had the length and leaping ability to meet shots at the summit. In fact, when you look at the field goal percentage allowed by each center when contesting a shot at the rim you can really see some correlation between the way Florida’s centers protected the rim and how the team played defensively overall. Here is the field goal percentage allowed at the rim by each Florida starting center with the team’s overall defensive ranking in brackets.
John Egbunu: 37% (14th)
John Egbunu: 33% (5th)
Kevarrius Hayes: 49% (24th)
Kevarrius Hayes: 38% (16th)
Kerry Blackshear: 56% (61st)
In fact, if you order the seasons by which center had the best rim protecting season, it correlates exactly with where Florida’s defense ranked. While that shouldn’t be the sole evidence of why rim protection makes or breaks Florida’s defense, it should certainly show just how important it is and why getting back to stout defense at the rim should be one of their focuses.
Fortunately for the Gators, they look to have one of the best shot blocking centers in the country returning to their roster this season.
Sophomore Omar Payne.
Payne had an 8.6% block rate as a freshman, the 43rd highest percentage in the country. At 6’10” with a near 7’6” wingspan he has all the length you’d ever want as a shot blocker and he also has the explosiveness and most importantly the desire to be a lockdown rim protector. Here are a few of the swats from his freshman season.
Lacking rim protection had a big impact on Florida’s defensive struggles last year. A bigger role for Omar Payne this year could play a huge role in the Gators rebuilding their defense. pic.twitter.com/8EQTvClm9N
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) November 8, 2020
Payne had 34 total blocks in his freshman season as a sometimes seldom-used option off the bench, though his total towered over Blackshear’s 19 blocks despite the fact he played almost double the amount of minutes that Payne did. Payne was also credited with contesting more shots at the rim than Blackshear did, and he forced far more misses than just shots he was able to get a hand on. His field goal percentage allowed at the rim was 38%, on par with shot blocking king Kevarrius Hayes.
Florida’s starting center position is still up in the air though many are expecting it to be Payne and if so, you can already pencil in the Gators for a much better defensive performance as a team than last year. If the Gators are going to continue to aggressively run perimeter players off the line then their centers are going to be pressured to protect the rim and Omar Payne is uniquely talented for that role. Additionally, White has talked at length about his desire to press this year. There are going to be times where that press breaks down and Payne is going to be the last line of defense against an odd-man break and in those situations his length could be what saves the day.