Last Tuesday, the Gators lost at Alabama by 15 points mostly due to their effort. Or, to be more precise, their lack of it. The Crimson Tide outrebounded them by five and outscored them by 18 in the paint. Alabama didn’t do anything special. They simply attacked UF’s frontcourt players with straight-line drives over and over.
“I didn’t think we prepared well for our game in Tuscaloosa,” Florida coach Mike White said. “It was really surprising because we came back from the break [after Keyontae Johnson’s collapse], and our guys just rallied around the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re playing again. Let’s do this for Keyontae.’ And I told you guys, I was surprised with the outcome in Nashville [against Vanderbilt]. And then, you beat a really good team here in LSU. And then, something changed there. Handling success, ‘Maybe it’s time to get mine.’ We had some stuff going on there where we weren’t nearly as sharp going into Tuscaloosa, and we got, really, the result that we deserved.”
The same cannot be said for the team’s most recent game against Kentucky on Saturday night. White thought they were as focused and energetic as they’ve been all season entering that game. The result, however, was the same – a blowout loss.
“I thought we prepared really well for Kentucky,” he said. “We were really sharp in those couple practices and as lively at shootaround as I’ve seen in a long, long time. So, that outcome was a little bit disappointing and surprising, but again, I think a lot of that had to do with how well those guys played.”
The Wildcats, indeed, did play very well despite their 3-6 record entering the game. Kentucky has loaded its roster with a collection of future NBA draft picks as usual, so they didn’t figure to stay down for long. Unfortunately for the Gators, they came alive last weekend, shooting 55.8 percent from the field, including 46.2 percent from deep. Defensively, their length gave the Gators fits, as they forced 16 turnovers that they converted into 25 points. UF shot just 37.5 percent for the game and scored a season-low 58 points.
“I think they would’ve beaten most teams in the country a couple nights ago,” White said. “I just do. I’d tell you if I didn’t think that. I didn’t think we were awful. I thought we played just as hard if not harder than we did against LSU. I just think that the matchup was different. We really struggled with their interior defense. Really, really struggled with it. Didn’t get many good looks. Didn’t handle their length great in ball-screen situations. They’re as tall, long as any team in the country, and those tall, long guys really, really move. The ceiling for that team defensively – it seems like we talk about it every year with their size, length, speed, quickness – is really, really high.”
Of course, the Gators and their fans are in no mood to use Kentucky’s stockpile of talent as an excuse. Defensive breakdowns and stagnant ball-movement have become trends over the past couple of seasons at UF. Kentucky didn’t reveal anything new about this team.
As Florida (5-3, 2-2 SEC) prepares for its home matchup with Ole Miss (6-4, 1-2) on Tuesday night, White has identified several key areas for improvement on both ends of the floor.
“I thought we did have five or six opportunities [against Kentucky], whether it was an errant pass to a dive that was open or a post-dive to the rim that we just didn’t see, some opportunities in the paint that we didn’t convert, an open shooter as we’re taking a contested one in the paint,” he said. “We had some missed opportunities that we’ve got to capitalize. We’ve got to share it better. We’ve got to move it better.
“We had a couple of missed rotations [on defense]. We got a few loose balls, but they got too many, especially on your home court.”
He also wants to see better poise from his players on the offensive end should they find themselves down by double-figures again moving forward. He thought they compounded their issues by trying to be the hero and forcing up contested shots instead of patiently going through their offensive sets.
“This team’s got to learn, like every team, that when you get down 10, 12 points, if you get out of character and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to put us on our back and go make a big play and hit a grand slam,’ that’s not a recipe for success against a really good defense,” he said. “I think some ‘My turn, I’m going to put the team on my back’ type decisions really backfired for us as opposed to staying the course, having poise and continuing with the game plan.”
Another issue this team might encounter is depth. With Johnson out of the fold for the remainder of the season, there are only seven players left who have separated themselves from their teammates, according to White: guards Tre Mann, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, and Tyree Appleby and forwards Anthony Duruji, Colin Castleton, and Omar Payne. When you’re trying to play a more up-tempo, aggressive style of game like the Gators are, the lack of depth combined with the less-than-stellar conditioning caused by the 2 ½ week layoff can cause you to get worn down late in games.
“We’ve got to find consistency,” White said. “Hopefully, the next four or five guys are all consistently doing what they do, and the decision will be based on the opponent and the scouting report and the flow of the game.
“As we’re evaluating depth and rotations and lineups, we’re reevaluating what we’re doing every day offensively and defensively, of course, with a different team. Not a ton of time, either, to spend just on us because we’d better figure out who Ole Miss is and how to compete with them effectively or we’re not going to be competitive.”
Right now, this season is shaping up almost exactly like the previous three campaigns – good enough to make the NCAA Tournament but not much more. There’s still time for the Gators to change that narrative, but it’s slipping away quickly.