By Eric Fawcett
The dust hasn’t yet settled from Florida’s dismantling of LSU as I sit here thinking about our Gators basketball team, and let me tell you, it’s definitely preferable to write after a big win than it is a big loss. We’re coming down to the home stretch of the season here and it seems like every game remaining has heightened importance so to get a performance like we just had in a 81-66 win over the Tigers is doubly impressive.
With my brain still buzzing from Florida’s big win, here are five thoughts I’m having about Gators basketball.
1) Florida’s defense is improving.
After the Gators got a top-20 defensive rating from a team that was undersized, under-athletic, and featuring a bunch of freshman and, to be quite honest, a couple players that weren’t particularly defensive-minded, I truly thought Mike White was going to be able to get any group of players to an elite level of defense.
…then this season happened, and despite what I thought to be some improved personnel, the Gators dipped as low as 84th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. That definitely hurt my theory that you could take any random five guys and White would get them to a top-20 defense, I won’t lie to you.
I was awfully critical of Florida’s defense, but I have to give them credit for turning things around a bit. They’ve climbed up to 62nd in adjusted defensive efficiency, which obviously still isn’t great, but it’s a major improvement, and the Gators just strung together a couple of really good defensive games. First, they slowed down a Kentucky team that’s much better offensively than Calipari’s usual teams, and then on Wednesday they stymied an LSU team that’s second in the country in offensive efficiency. That is no small feat and the team deserves loads of credit for their work on the defensive side.
Schematically the Gators have started to do a couple of things I have long advocated for them to do. First off, they have started to play more conservatively in pick and roll defense instead of getting Kerry Blackshear Jr. to blitz ball handlers, a technique that got him caught in no man’s land on too many occasions. Next, they have started to mix in a 3-2 zone which really changes the look they give from their man defense. Both adjustments have been helpful and have contributed to an improved defense. They’re still not where they want to be but they are in a better place than they were a couple of weeks ago and it’s nice to see improvement.
2) The Gators need to figure out some plays to run for Noah Locke.
For most of the SEC season Noah Locke was on fire hitting a blistering 51% of his threes. Then, in the last two games he went ice cold going 0-5 from the field against Kentucky and then 1-5 against LSU, and it’s worth noting that his one make was a wide open attempt in garbage time when the Tigers had decided they were done guarding.
A big reason he just had two bad shooting games—he took bad shots. Fall away jumpers on drives. Dribble threes off of pick and rolls. Shots that haven’t been great for him in his basketball career.
Why did he take these shots? Well, he wasn’t getting any other looks.
Here’s the thing—Florida doesn’t run any plays for Locke. Even though he’s a lights-out shooter, the way he gets his looks are within the regular offensive scheme, and when Andrew Nembhard or Keyontae Johnson get penetration and draw help, hopefully someone has to leave Locke and he can get found for an open jumper. Sometimes that works, but if a team like Kentucky is taking that away, the Gators don’t have any plays in their arsenal to call for Locke to get freed up.
So, because Locke wasn’t getting shots in the flow of the offense, he started forcing bad shots against Kentucky and LSU. And I predict that will happen in games where he isn’t getting open looks, and it would be much more preferable if the Gators had plays for him such as a “floppy” set which you see all the time in the NBA, or a simple pin down screen that might get him loose on the weak side of the floor.
Remember the beginning of the season when Florida was trying to play the dribble drive offense? One of the problems was that in the flow of the offense they weren’t getting the ball into Kerry Blackshear Jr. enough. So, what did they do? They started calling designed plays to get him the ball inside. They should absolutely be doing the same thing for Noah Locke, one of the best shooters in the country who could be doing even more damage if the Gators had set plays ready for him.
3) Where is Omar Payne?
This is something a lot of people have asked me about and frankly…I really don’t know why he hasn’t been playing much.
Coach White did address this a few games ago, at least to an extent, when he suggested that effort in practice was dictating which frontcourt players were getting minutes. I’m not in practice so I don’t know if that’s the case, so I’ll have to take Coach’s word on that.
Still, it’s fairly surprising to me. White has definitely been pushing an identity with his team that’s rooted in players that practice hard getting more minutes, but when Payne has gotten on the floor he has been productive. To be honest, it’s also a bit hard to imagine Payne dogging it in practice because in game action he shows incredible amounts of hustle and you’d think he’d show some of that same fire in the practice gym. But, once again, I’m not in practice so what do I know.
Additionally, Dontay Bassett is back on the floor finally somewhat healthy and Jason Jitoboh has also been playing a bit better and that has also contributed to Payne not playing as much. Are they playing better than Payne would? Well, I guess you never know, but neither of those players have any numbers that support them being more effective than Payne so there is a chance in the last few weeks when Payne has been out of the rotation that having him in would have made things better for the Gators.
I guess we’ll never know, but just like many of you I am a fan and a believer in Payne and I truly think the team would be better with him playing more minutes.
4) Florida’s offense is at it’s best when they’re getting points at the rim.
When the Gators have had some of their best offensive efforts this year it has often been due to three-point shots falling but against LSU they once again proved something that has been noticeable throughout the season.
When the Gators can score in the paint, their offense is at it’s best.
Against the Tigers the Gators had 50 points in the paint, a season high, and I’m not sure that Florida’s offense has ever looked better. Andrew Nembhard knifing to the rim, Keyontae Johnson blowing by a defender closing out, Scottie Lewis cutting and receiving the ball in rhythm… all of these plays resulted in high percentage shots at the rim.
One major positive of getting points inside and at the rim is that it’s a much more consistent and reliable way to get offense than shooting a lot of threes. When the Gators have been three-point reliant they have gone through drastic swings of hot and then cold, something that’s going to happen with jump shots. When you get the ball inside you’re going to be a more consistent offensively club and if the Gators can keep getting the ball going towards the hoop they will keep improving.
Getting the ball inside is also going to open up better three-point shots anyways because defenses will need to collapse. This was on display against LSU when the Gators went 9-21 from three for 43%. Almost all of their threes came on inside-out actions and because of that most were wide open. Going forward when you’re watching the Gators, look to see how often they can get shots in the paint. The more they get, the better.
5) The Gators are now favored to win all their remaining SEC games.
For the last three weeks the upcoming road game at Tennessee had the Volunteers favored but after the Gators dismantled the Tigers and the Volunteers got bullied by the Razorbacks the Gators are now favored by 1. Florida is picked to win at home against Kentucky and Georgia and that means they’re projected to win out the regular season.
First of all, let’s talk SEC standings. If the Gators were to win out that would mean a 13-5 record, and that would likely put them second in the league behind Kentucky who currently sits at 13-2. Currently the Gators are third in the league, trailing Auburn by a single game. Fortunately for the Gators, Auburn is projected to lose 2 of their last three games and if they ended up tied with Florida in the standings the Gators have the tie break. The difference in finishing second and third doesn’t particularly matter as both seeds get double byes, but finishing higher up in the standings always feels better, let’s be honest.
Now, the NCAA Tournament picture.
Entering Wednesday’s game with LSU the Gators were projected to be a 9 seed in most brackets, but the win over the Tigers probably pushes them up to an 8. If they were to win their final three games, they would certainly be on the 7 line entering the SEC Tournament. That would be huge because it’s always important to stay out of the 8-9 game like it’s the plague. If you can’t picture a bracket of the top of your head, the winner of the 8-9 game goes up against the 1 seed. Well, the winner of the 1-16 game, but you get the idea. Honestly, and I don’t say this lightly, I would rather the Gators lose a game or two and drop to a 10 seed than to stay at the 8 line. If the Gators were a 10 seed it’s not like there would be any 7 seeds that would really scare them in the first round, especially in this season where there is so much parity, and a win in that game would mean you likely play a 3 seed instead of the 1 seed if you won the 8-9 game.
Luckily, it really looks like the Gators are going to be in a position to be a 7 seed with a chance at a 6 if they tacked on more wins in the SEC Tournament. Obviously, there are a ton of moving pieces in college basketball and you can’t just look at Florida’s future performances in a vacuum but you can have a pretty good idea based on what outcomes are projected.
That’s all for today, see you next week!