Florida basketball: Making sense of Mike White and Florida's abysmal start
The Florida Gators have gotten off to a dismal start to the 2019-2020 basketball season, dropping 2 games to unranked opponents and falling very quickly out of the Top 25 after beginning the season ranked No. 6.
The Gators were preseason darlings, almost universally expected to contend for the SEC Championship and the program’s 6th Final Four appearance. How much hype? The lowest ranking for Florida in any major preseason publication was 11th.
The hype made sense, as the talent assembled by Mike White and his staff was simply too tempting to ignore. Florida’s roster includes 3 sophomore starters from last season’s 2nd-round NCAA Tournament team and another highly-regarded recruiting class that included 3 of the nation’s top 50 players, including McDonald’s All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Florida then went out and landed the nation’s most coveted grad transfer in center Kerry Blackshear Jr. and on paper, you have a team that should play deep into March. Florida projected to have scoring balance, a savvy point guard and depth and like every White team, you could expect them to defend at a high level.
Through the season’s first 4 games, however, we’ve yet to see Florida play good basketball. Instead, the Gators are 2-2, with losses to the only Power 6 conference opponents they have played.
All the more discouraging is the fact that neither loss should be considered “good losses.”
Connecticut is a storied program but hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 3 seasons and had been blown out on its home floor by a middling St. Joseph’s team with 7 new players earlier in the week. Gampel Pavilion was lit Sunday, jacked up for the Gators, but part of being good is rising to the occasion when you get everyone’s best shot. Florida didn’t.
Florida’s other loss, to an FSU program that has reached the 2nd weekend of the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons, is not a huge deal on paper. The Seminoles have a talented roster and are likely headed to the NCAA Tournament again this spring. But the fact Florida was humiliated on their home floor by a rival that lost 67 percent of its scoring from last season’s Sweet 16 group is concerning, and White’s 0-5 record against FSU does him zero favors with a Florida fan base that is growing increasingly restless and worried about the direction of his program.
As a result, Florida’s lone wins are over North Florida and Towson and at present, the Gators aren’t just overrated — they stink.
White and his staff have plenty of work to do. We explore what’s gone wrong, and whether the Gators can fix it, beginning this week at the Charleston Classic.
The Gators can’t shoot the 3
Florida’s largest problem on offense isn’t schematic (we will get to those problems below). It’s that the Gators aren’t making shots.
Florida is shooting an atrocious 24% from beyond the arc. That is terrible any way you cut it, but with the Gators, it is a problem compounded by Florida’s scheme, which is to play slow and to rely on ball movement and spacing to create open looks for perimeter shooters.
If the Gators aren’t making 3s, defenses aren’t extended (see the Florida State game) and can collapse on All-American Kerry Blackshear Jr., who is by miles Florida’s best threat to score in the post. As such, Florida doesn’t stress defenses, who can pack the area near the basket to stop Blackshear.
Blackshear has been excellent — averaging a double-double a game — but without the help and with defenses collapsing on him, it isn’t enough to carry the Gators.
This also impacts Florida defensively, because the Gators like to control tempo and stress opposing offenses with a press — a 2-2-1 usually — but you can’t consistently get into a press if you don’t knock down enough shots. As such, Florida’s shooting struggles from the perimeter are impacting every aspect of their operation at present.
Florida’s slow tempo doesn’t always make sense with this roster
Florida has played slow and methodical basketball since the final 2 seasons of the Donovan era.
The Gators were 318th of 345 in adjusted tempo when they made their last Final Four under Donovan, and the fastest Florida has played in any season since is year one of the White era, when the Gators ranked 110th nationally in tempo. That Florida team went to the NIT, and White’s teams have played progressively slower every year since, bottoming out at 344th in tempo last season.
You don’t have to play fast to win. In fact, only one of the past 6 national champions (2017 UNC) ranked in the top 100 in tempo, and last year’s champion, UVA, was the slowest team in the country.
The logic is simple, especially at program’s with elite defensive cultures, like Florida, a program that has finished in the top 25 in KenPom defensive efficiency every year since 2013. If you limit the number of possessions in a game, the team that values the ball by limiting turnovers and gets the most stops will usually win. The formula has worked for White to some extent, as UF is 1 of 2 SEC programs (Kentucky) to win an NCAA Tournament game in each of the past 3 seasons.
But it shouldn’t be blind program ideology, and it should always factor in personnel.
This year, I don’t think what White has done so far schematically as it relates to tempo makes much sense.
The Gators rank 345th in tempo, almost identical to last year despite possessing a more athletic roster.
It won’t make Florida fans happy to hear this, but the Gators’ methodical halfcourt tempo mostly makes sense. Blackshear Jr., along with guards Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard, aren’t elite athletes but are high IQ players who value the ball. Playing slower with them makes sense.
But Florida absolutely should look to run in transition, especially as it struggles to make shots, and the Gators have 3 terrific pieces with which to do that in sophomore Keyontae Johnson and the freshmen wings Lewis and Mann.
Why the Gators have insisted on slowing tempo, especially after opposing missed shots, is mystifying.
On the season, Florida has attempted only 13.3 percent of its shots in transition, almost 5 percent below the national average and, despite more athleticism on the floor, lower than last year’s Florida average of 14.5 percent. That’s a schematic flaw that must be addressed moving forward.
Florida’s motion offense needs to incorporate more sets
The Gators’ brand of motion offense, like all motion offenses, relies heavily on spacing to keep defenses off balance as to where shots are coming from and create advantages on the floor depending on how defenses react. Florida calls less sets in this lineup, theoretically giving players the ability to play freely and run basic actions (pick and roll, flare screens, pindowns, high ball screens) based on what the defense does.
At present, though, Florida has 2 issues in this system.
First, players are thinking too much, with players spending too much time reactively reading defenses instead of moving and playing (what layman view as “just standing around”).
Second, because Florida isn’t making shots, the spacing matters less and defenses can collapse on Blackshear and the cutters in the lane, because they aren’t as worried about shooters.
To combat this, Florida could run more low post sets — mostly out of Princeton concepts — to make Blackshear the fulcrum of the offense and continue to create looks for cutters and shooters. But Florida hasn’t done much of this yet this season, which is odd given how set reliant the Gators were late last year when they played their best basketball.
Florida is a tight, frustrated team right now. Can they fix it?
The good news is the Gators are still defending at a high level.
If you hold opponents to 59, 63, 60 and 62 points, and no one you play averages a point a possession — you should win most the time.
That Florida hasn’t done that is deeply concerning, but defense travels and as long as the buy-in is there on defense and in the locker room, the Gators will be in a bunch of close games and have the talent to be very good.
Still, the nonconference matters, both for seeding purposes and for the team and coaches to gain confidence.
The Gators are playing tight and nervous, afraid to make a mistake on offense and at times, too “relieved” when they do score, leading to lapses on defense.
The staff is under increasing pressure to produce with what is the most talented roster in Gainesville since the 2011-2012 Elite 8 team that featured Bradley Beal, and the players have at times seemed shell-shocked by the early adversity after an offseason of reading how good they will be.
This week’s Charleston Classic seems like an early gut check for this program and team. Florida is the most talented team in the field, but open with a St. Joe’s team that routed the UCONN team that just beat Florida. Resume boosting opportunities against Xavier, Missouri State and a Miami team that has been very good early on also lie in wait in the South Carolina lowcountry.
At 42, White is still regarded as one of the best young minds in the sport. But he hasn’t done a good job early this season.
As a result, he’s earned criticism, with much of the noise about the system legitimate. White’s seat isn’t hot yet, but it is warming, and all bets are off if this team goes in the tank. This Florida program is too good — with great facilities, big-time basketball only boosters, and a rich tradition — to wait and descend to mediocrity.