Mike White has always been known as a defensive basketball coach, and for that reason Florida’s last two seasons were campaigns he’d like to improve on.
In 2020-21, the Gators were 41st in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, the metric most accepted as gospel when it comes to evaluating college basketball teams. Now, 41st wasn’t great, but it was an improvement from the year prior where Florida was 61st.
This was a major departure from White’s early years in Gainesville where the Gators finished 14th, 5th, 24th, and 16th. It’s worth noting that in those last two seasons the Gators were young, undersized, and not particularly athletic–yet they still found a way to keep the ball out of their hoop at a high level. Considering the Gators were able to defend so well those seasons without prototypically defense-minded players, the results of the last two years where the Gators had more talent on the roster was a bit of a surprise.
For this year’s Gators, the first names you think of when it comes to Florida’s defense improving could be Brandon McKissic or Phlandrous Fleming, players who were all-league defenders in their previous spots. Or, it could be Boston College transfer CJ Felder who was both an interior bruiser and versatile perimeter defender despite being 6’7” and 230 pounds.
When it comes to players that could improve Florida’s defensive makeup it might not be a fresh face to the roster, but a returner who didn’t see a whole lot of run as a freshman.
Sophomore Niels Lane was a player who struggled to get on the floor a year ago as a freshman. In addition to regular growing pains for a player coming to college from high school, injuries, sickness, and contact tracing slowed down his development in the first critical months he was in Gainesville. He never seemed to totally get his footing, at least in the eyes of the coaching staff, who kept him as a seldom-used perimeter piece.
While he wasn’t given a ton of opportunities (5.8 minutes per game in 14 appearances) there was one thing about his game that was apparent and that was his perimeter defense.
Most notably was Lane’s performance against an excellent Tennessee squad in January, a game where, despite missing Colin Castleton and Scottie Lewis, the Gators had a blowout 75-49 win. Lane completely blanketed Keon Johnson and Josiah Jordan-James in his season high 18 minutes and was a huge part of Florida’s defensive clinic, one that resulted in the Volunteers having the lowest points per possession in a game during the Rick Barnes era.
Despite the stellar performance from Lane, it didn’t result in many more minutes the rest of the season (partially due to a lower body injury that slowed him in practice).
In a small sample size, Lane was incredible defensively. As the primary defender, opponents shot only 15.8% against Lane (0.35 points per possession), a simply ridiculous number. Yes, this was a relatively small sample size given the fact that Lane played a total of 81 minutes last season, but he also had no easy matchups. Against Tennessee, he guarded a future first round pick in Keon Johnson and a former five-star recruit in Josiah Jordan-James. Against Vanderbilt, he checked one of the best scorers in the SEC in Scotty Pippen Jr. Yes, the sample is small, but the context is intriguing. A player who played a similar role (but obviously many more minutes) was Scottie Lewis, who allowed 0.9 points per possession against, well below the national average.
When Lane was on the floor he brought length at 6’5” and the physicality at 205 pounds to cut off dribble penetration from the physical drivers of the SEC. This was something the Gators were in fairly short supply of given the height and weight of their perimeter players. While the Gators got a bit more bulk and muscle with their transfers this season, Brandon McKissic and Myreon Jones (both shooting guards like Lane) are both listed at 6’3”, something that could cause some tough matchups looking at the length across the SEC. Length isn’t everything when it comes to defense, but it certainly helps, and if the Gators are going to continue to play the heavy switching style of man defense they have done a lot recently, then at times they will need to be big on the perimeter to present an adequate level of versatility.
For Lane to continue to increase his workload, there will likely have to be some improvement on the offensive end.
Like many elite basketball players, Lane went through a role transition from what he was in high school to what he was as a freshman in college. In high school and AAU, Lane was a player who had the ball in his hands a bunch where he was particularly skilled at generating open looks for his teammates. Then he came to Florida where he would have to come off the bench cold and play away from the ball, needing to hit shots off the catch. This was a role he wasn’t prepared for, and his jump shot attempts often lacked fluidity and ended up crooked. With a year, and a true offseason for once, under his belt, I’m told Lane came back to campus a much more confident jump shooter. Considering how good his defense was last year, if he can add a jump shot he’ll be the exact type of wing that thrives in modern basketball.
Considering he was a point guard in high school, Lane would also love to take a run at some of the backup point guard minutes behind Tyree Appleby. Brandon McKissic played the point at UMKC, though is better away from the ball where he can get backdoor for cuts and space the floor with his 40% catch and shoot stroke. Lane would be a complete change of pace from the much smaller Appleby in a point guard role and would be a dogged defender to bother opposing ball handlers.
On Tuesday, the Gators took part in an intersquad scrimmage:
— Chris Harry (@GatorsChris) October 12, 2021
As pointed out by Malik Grady (@MalikG) on Twitter, the lineups were as such:
It may be foolish to be reading into lineups used in a mid-October scrimmage, particularly in a setting where they likely weren’t playing more than 15 or 20 minute games. However, Tyree Appleby and Colin Castleton are arguably Florida’s two most important players, and the two that you can say almost certainly will be starting. CJ Felder is a player that many, like myself, have been advocating to start, and Kowacie Reeves is arguably the most talented player on the team who will likely grab a starting spot at some point this season. Lane playing with this combination of players is certainly interesting, though sadly the scrimmage was completely closed off and I guess we’ll never know exactly what the chemistry of that group was.
In a season where lineups are as up in the air as ever, Niels Lane is someone that is tough to project. However, we know his defense was top notch as a freshman, and if he becomes a major contributor on the offensive end he could end up being one of the surprise players of the 2021-22 season.