Lost amid the chaos of the Gators’ football team is a curious fact: Mike White might actually have something going over across the street.
The new head coach has quietly gotten off to a solid start to his Gator tenure, and has actually picked up a decent win for his team’s NCAA resume along the way. After winning their first two games, the Gators split their next two games at the Hall of Fame tournament in Connecticut, beating a respectable St. Joe’s and then falling to 21st ranked Purdue; they then dispatched Vermont and Florida Gulf Coast to get to 5-1.
St. Joe’s gave Florida their first true test of the year in game one of the Hall of Fame tourney in Uncasville. The Hawks led for most of the first half, but Florida wouldn’t let them pull away. It became a back and forth game in the second half, which gave Florida a chance to do something it never did last year: win close games. And they did, ending the game on a 12-1 run for a 74-63 win. Thank you Devin Robinson for your double-double, and Dorian Finney-Smith for your three pointer to put the Hawks away with 1:22 left.
Florida then advanced to face Purdue in the championship game. And don’t be fooled by the final score of 85-70, or the fact that Florida needed a 7-0 run to even get it that close to begin with. The Gators were in the game with the Boilermakers the entire way, and cut a ten point deficit down to three with eight minutes left. But Purdue then salted the game away on threes by Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson, which turned out to be the start of a 25-3 run. Florida just couldn’t hang in there long enough against the Boilermakers, who shot 50% from the floor on the night.
The Gators then returned home to face Vermont. After an initial slow start, the Gators woke up and clobbered the Catamounts on the strength of four players scoring in double figures, including 20 from Finney-Smith. There was one fleeting moment of worry after Vermont cut the lead down to 50-44 with 12:53 to go, forcing White to call a timeout, but that merely meant it was time for somebody to step up and put the Catamounts away. Finney-Smith did that with a three right out of the timeout and that was pretty much that. Final: Florida 86, Vermont 62.
Florida Gulf Coast gave Florida a significantly tougher time than Vermont. The Eagles stayed within striking distance the entire first half, and went on an 8-0 run toward the end of the half to stake themselves a four point lead. But Florida responded with a 13-0 run (feat. threes by Dorian Finney-Smith and Kevaughn Allen) that gave them the lead right back and knocked the Eagles down for the count. Never again did FGCU get it closer than seven, and after a brief offensive spurt midway through the second half, Florida held FGCU to one measly three in the game’s final 7:10. Of course, that drought presented the Gators a nice chance to pad the score, and make it look prettier than it was. Thanks in large part to 23 points from Finney-Smith, the next day’s newspapers read: Florida 70, FGCU 50.
So that’s where we stand right now. We’re all caught up on the Gator basketball team’s results. Now, what is there to take away from those four games? Well, a fair bit, actually.
The first thing that’s worth mentioning is the play of Kasey Hill. I still don’t think he’s as bad as a lot of other Gator fans do, but my patience with him is really starting to wear thin. He reminds me of a young Erving Walker. Like Walker, he’s capable of making some big plays, as evidenced by his 13 points against St. Joe’s. And like Walker, sometimes those “plays” are good for the other team, like the ten turnovers he’s committed through six games so far. On top of that, shooting free throws at a 50% clip isn’t going to cut it for much longer. So I totally get that his play so far may not be exemplary, and I’m the first to tell you that he needs to improve enough to lead this team in SEC play within the next month.
On a more positive note, John Egbunu has begun to establish himself as a beast. He’s not only an intimidating presence down low, but he’s also come up big when the Gators need him to, most recently with a three point play early in the second half against FGCU to expand Florida’s lead to nine. It’s too early to say something like, “At long last, Florida has found its dominating big man!” because of the small and possibly deceiving sample size, but Egbunu has really showed some promise.
Finally, Dorian Finney-Smith deserves a happy ending to his up and down college career, and he’s off to a good start in his final collegiate season. He’s averaged 20 points over the Gators’ last three games, and more importantly, some of those points have come in moments where the Gators need them the most. I’m excited to see how he continues to develop as the year progresses.
But now comes the tough part of the Gators’ schedule, and we’ll soon find out whether Finney-Smith and Egbunu’s promise is just a collection of nice moments and article fodder, or legitimate reasons to believe in this team going forward. After facing Richmond tonight, the Gators go to Miami, to Michigan State, to Sunrise to face Oklahoma State in the Orange Bowl game, and then back home to face Jacksonville and FSU before conference play starts. To say that we’re about to find out what this team is made of may be a cliche, but… we’re about to find out what this team is made of.