There is a pulse to a college basketball season, a meter and measure that can be read reasonably well by those who have watched long enough, especially come February. Further, there are certain axioms that apply- cliche or no. The season is more marathon than sprint, no matter how boring that is to hear. Talent wins out; experienced talent wins even more. The road team is unlikely to win at places like Rupp Arena. And well-coached, talented teams playing at home that are also desperate for a victory are outstanding bets. And so given that Florida was traveling to Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon for a nationally-televised affair against a deep, talented and well-coached Kentucky squad coming off two heartbreaking road losses,logic dictated the Gators could be in trouble, notwithstanding their saying all the right things about bringing tremendous energy on the road and defending in the build-up. And I tweeted the sentiment that Florida, despite entering the game winners of five of six, would have trouble.
Kentucky routed Florida 80-61.
Some of the loss had to do with facing a desperate Kentucky team in an environment where Florida, even under Billy Donovan, found wins scant. And it is true that come resume review time, there will be no shame in losing at Rupp Arena. But Florida and Mike White in particular will be disappointed with how the team as a whole (there were a pair of nice individual performances) competed Saturday.
Thoughts on the loss, the week that was for Florida basketball, and the week to come.
Florida entered the week 7th in the nation in defensive efficiency (measured as points allowed per possession.) They left the week 12th, and were woeful defensively in the first half Saturday.
The Gators fell behind 20-5, and trailed by as many as 26 before cutting it to 12 and 13 late before Kentucky shut the door once and for all to win by 19. Most the damage was done in the first minutes of the game. Kentucky registered 20 points on its first 10 possessions- a staggering and nearly impossible to overcome 2 points per possession. That they “only” scored 30 in their final 30 possessions of the first half seemed far better. Nonetheless, it was the worst half for Florida defensively from an efficiency standpoint in four-plus years, dating back to conceding at a 1.27 clip against Ohio State in C-BUS in November 2011. That’s not going to win many basketball games. And the point a possession they held UK too after the opening barrage, which saw them fall behind 20-5 was still almost .1 points per trip worse than the season average.
I think it is worth remembering, at this point, that the UK game came on the backend of a four game span where Florida played a very physical Vanderbilt team at Memorial Gym, and then two of the most fast and furious pressing teams in America and West Virginia and Arkansas at home. How much the Gators had in the tank physically is fair to ask.
Again, a good measure of credit is due the opponent, another Kentucky collection of elite talent featuring two of the nation’s most skilled guards in Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Florida committed only 10 turnovers, which means UK was hitting shots, not just beating Florida up in transition. Ulis tallied 11 assists and opened Florida up on the wings with his frequent drives to the bucket, which forced the Gators to collapse and help. Murray did most the rest, connecting on an absurd 8 of 10 from beyond the arc and getting to the rim when he wanted to en route to a career high 35 points.
Coming off the collapse at Tennessee and a tough loss at Kansas where they led by as many as 8, UK was desperate to show they could finish a game and grab a victory against a quality team in the process. Couple that with the reality that Calipari’s club, like most young teams, has been far better at home this year than away, and the Gators were always going to be climbing uphill Saturday afternoon. And if you don’t defend on the road, you won’t beat many teams, much less a good Kentucky one.
Facing two of the nation’s more prolific offenses, the Gators gave up over 80 points per contest.
Arkansas scored mostly at will too, particularly in a helter skelter second half that wasn’t over until KeVaughn Allen drained two clutch free throws with 6 seconds remaining. Yes, Florida made Arkansas guard and leading scorer Dusty Hannahs work for his 20 points, many of which came on contested floaters in the lane or jump shots. But Anthlon Bell poured in 24 on mostly clean looks, many of which came because Florida’s guards were way late on their rotations coming off ball-screens or got caught underneath the pindowns Arkansas coach Mike Anderson loves to utilize on the wings. That’s all about recognition, and it is usually a strength of the Florida guards on defense, and needs to be, for that matter, given how much they give up size wise. Arkansas used these sets to shoot 45 percent from the floor and a white hot 47 percent from three point range, numbers that make it difficult to win, especially when you can be as erratic as Florida on the offensive end.
One of the largest challenges entering the year for Mike White and his staff was how to defend in the half court while relying on undersized guards to patrol the perimeter. If Florida’s guards are going to negate their quickness advantage by being slow to recognize screens or playing with poor spatial recognition, that challenge can become an actual deficiency.
The Gators split another difficult week, which was the baseline requirement.
Losing at Rupp won’t hurt the Gators resume one iota in March. Losing at home to an improving but still floating around .500 Arkansas team would have. The Gators withstood the Hogs upset bid by hitting an excellent 30 of 36 free throws. Talk about winning a game by making a perceived weakness a strength.
Florida also received more stellar play from sophomore point guard Chris Chiozza in the Arkansas win. Chiozza struggled at Rupp and outside of a decent night at Michigan State and one night at Ole Miss, hasn’t been the same player away from the friendly O’Dome confines this season. That needs to change, but his 8 assists to one turnover helped keep Florida operating efficiently against the Arkansas press, and he comes home this week with 63 assists in SEC play against 20 turnovers, a 3-1 ratio that has only been accomplished in conference play by two Florida point guards ever: Scottie Wilbekin and Taurean Green.
Bottom line? With Dorian Finney-Smith continuing to play at peak levels and Chiozza running the offense efficiently, at least in Gainesville, Florida remains in very good shape moving forward.
This week will frame the remainder of the season.
Florida has four home games left. Two of those are this week, against Ole Miss Tuesday night and Alabama Saturday afternoon. The Rebels are playing well of late, winners of their last three in the SEC and losing only narrowly at Kansas State in the SEC/BIG XII challenge, a loss that isn’t shameful given what KSU just did to #1 Oklahoma in the same building yesterday. Ole Miss has only one road win in conference, and would love to garner a bubble-comparison win over one of the only two teams to beat them in their new Oxford digs this year.
Better days are ahead of Alabama under Avery Johnson, but the Gators have more talent and the Tide also have won only once this year in conference on the road. The Gators should win this game, which would set up a six game sprint to the finish line.
Only two of the final six are at home, and both home games in that set are against teams that have already beaten Florida on the season- Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The Gators tournament fate will be decided in that segment of the year. Win the two games this week, and the Gators will have margin for error. Drop either of the next two, and Florida is likely back in a position where they need a quality win down the stretch to feel safe about the NCAA Tournament when they arrive in Nashville for the SEC Tournament.
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