For Mike White and Florida, March begins now
Florida enters Wednesday night’s contest against LSU (9 p.m., ESPN2) firmly situated on the NCAA bubble.
The Gators are listed as a projected No. 9 seed in the latest Joe Lunardi Bracketology, a 10 seed in Jerry Palm’s CBS Bracketology, and Bracket Matrix, a website that tracks the aggregate seeding projection of most every Bracketology site, has Florida as a projected 9 seed. Any of those scenarios put Florida just on the good side of the bubble, with little room to stumble down the stretch.
A win over a very good LSU team would certainly do the Gators immense favors, giving Florida another prize win for its résumé and putting some distance between Florida and the troubling side of the bubble.
Florida and LSU have played some classics over the past 2 seasons, with all 4 meetings decided by 5 points or fewer. LSU nipped the Gators by 2 in Baton Rouge last month, with a Keyontae Johnson basket that would have forced overtime ruled no good by about a tenth of a second.
After blitzing their way to an 8-0 start in SEC play, the defending SEC champion Tigers have lost 4 of 6. Nevertheless, Will Wade’s team remains solid on the road, having won 4 of their 8 road games this year, well above the SEC average. The Gators will need to play well to win, which raises the larger point: For Florida, March begins now.
Florida has looked the part of an improving basketball team over the past 3 weeks. The Gators are 5-2 in their past 7 games and fell just short against a top 10 Kentucky outfit at Rupp on Saturday night in what was one of the better-played SEC basketball games of the season. The Gators who showed up at Rupp and went toe-to-toe with a hot Kentucky team in their building appear very capable of making noise over the season’s final month-plus. But Florida needs to play with the same urgency they brought to Rupp night in and night out, beginning with Wednesday’s tilt with the Tigers.
Florida has a very difficult closing stretch, but the beauty of a challenging schedule is it provides a great opportunity to bolster your résumé before Selection Sunday. Following last week’s games against Arkansas (a win) and at Kentucky, Florida’s final 4 contests before the SEC Tournament are: vs. LSU, at Tennessee, at Georgia, vs. Kentucky. That stretch includes 2 games against certain NCAA Tournament teams in LSU and Kentucky, 1 game against a vastly improved Tennessee and a rivalry game on the road.
There is no gimme in the stretch.
Despite Georgia’s inconsistency, the Dawgs still feature Anthony Edwards, perhaps the top pick in the NBA Draft, and they always pack the house for Florida. Winning in Athens should be an expectation, but as Florida learned earlier this season when they fell behind Georgia by 20-plus points at home before rallying to win, Florida can’t take the Dawgs lightly, especially on the road.
If Florida can finish this stretch 3-1, however, they’ll be 20-11 heading to the SEC Tournament, with 12 wins in the league. That should all but assure Florida of a top 4 seed and a double-bye in Nashville, and would likely mean that the Gators are safely in the NCAA Tournament field before the SEC Tournament and only playing for improved seeding. Lose more than 1 of the final 4 games — especially without capturing either of the huge résumé opportunities in LSU and Kentucky — and things get much more complicated.
On paper, Florida should win or compete to win all 4 games. The Gators rank higher than all of their final opponents save Kentucky in KenPom and are favored to win all 4 games in the oft-used Haslametrics system, which prefers Florida’s balance on both ends to Kentucky on a neutral floor. But this season has shown us that with the Gators, it’s often a question of which team shows up.
As noted above, Florida has improved a great deal in the past few weeks, especially defensively, where they have been a much more consistent basketball team. Once in the 80s in KenPom defensive efficiency, Florida’s number has improved to 62. The Gators still struggle in their pick and roll coverages, but Mike White and the staff have adjusted, dropping pick and roll coverages rather than blitzing screeners, which has helped offset the lack of athleticism of Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Further, the continued development of Jason Jitoboh and Omar Payne has given Florida a better presence at the rim, even if Payne still struggles in pick and roll coverages and Jitoboh still fouls a bit too often for the staff’s liking. Those adjustments, plus a commitment to more gap defense against teams with physical, driving guards, have helped Florida improve schematically on defense. Florida isn’t the elite, Top 25 in the country defensive unit they’ve been every season until this one under White, but with one of the better offenses in the SEC (and White’s tenure), they don’t have to be great on defense — merely serviceable will do fine.
Offensively, Florida struggled against Kentucky with Noah Locke unable to get loose from deep. But the sharpshooter has still hit 14 of his past 27 3-point attempts in SEC play and is leading the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage in conference play.
His ability to hit shots has extended defenses, peeling away help from the post and opening driving lanes for Andrew Nembhard, who is vastly improved as a finisher at the rim, and Keyontae Johnson, who is vicious attacking closeouts.
Johnson’s emergence has been particularly welcome news for a Gators team that has searched for a go-to guy and leader all year after the departure of spiritual leader Kevarrius Hayes to graduation last spring. Laid back and easy going off the court, Johnson is a warrior on it, and he’s started to attack more in pivotal moments. If you look purely at offensive efficiency, Blackshear was, as expected in the preseason, Florida’s best player for most of the year. That has now changed. Johnson possesses Florida’s highest offensive rating, and while Andrew Nembhard remains invaluable given Florida’s lack of a truly reliable second ball-handler, Johnson’s ability to get to the basket, draw fouls and pass has given Florida’s offense a huge lift in conference play.
Johnson’s field goal percentage of over 50% is even more impressive when you consider he shoots a healthy number of 3-pointers (68 of his 262 field goal attempts) and he’s a 36% shooter from deep, good for the 2nd-best number on the team behind Locke.
Further, he possesses Florida’s 2nd-highest defensive zone rating, per Hoop Lens, trailing only the fundamentally sound Nembhard defensively. Johnson is also Florida’s 2nd-best rebounder, cleaning up the boards at 7.0 per contest, only 0.5 behind Blackshear. Johnson’s energy at both ends has become infectious, and Florida looks like a more athletic, energetic team when he’s on the floor.
In other words, Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades, a player who is competent at everything and the key to Florida’s late-season surge.
For Florida to compete for the Sweet 16 in March, they’ll need a decent seed. To do that, they need to play with the commitment and investment they showed at Rupp and clean up the execution errors. They also need to bring the same energy they have brought for big tilts against the likes of Auburn, LSU, Baylor and Kentucky to their late-season contests against also-rans such as Tennessee and Georgia.
Do that, and this team will still have a chance to accomplish some of the lofty goals its talent suggested it could in the preseason. Fail to come together now, and this season will likely remain a disappointing tale of what could have been.
For Florida, March begins early Wednesday night against LSU. Will they be ready?