For Scottie Lewis, it wasn’t so much the message that was standing out but the messenger.
“It’s not too many times Coach White steams,” explains Lewis.
“He wants us to have our individual confidence and our confidence as a team but his coaching mindset is a ‘do your job’ mindset…so if Coach White kinda gets out of his comfort zone and says that we can do certain things that we’re not used to him saying, it’s kinda, it’s big time for us.”
The space outside of the Florida Gators head coach’s comfort zone in this instance was openly discussing the NCAA Tournament with multiple regular season games still on the schedule.
White discussed the tournament, at least in theory, with his team at the beginning of the season when they were ranked pre-season No. 6 and labeled a Final Four contender. He admitted then it wasn’t in his norm to do so but felt it necessary given the weight of expectations that his guys were openly acknowledging. But with four regular season games and at least one SEC Tournament game left and sitting at 17-9 (now 18-9 following Wednesday's win), he brought up the subject once again.
“Our guys know the big picture. They know it. I told them yesterday, for probably the third or fourth time, our spectrum is we could potentially make a big run in the NCAA Tournament or we could potentially not go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s where we are. I think there are a bunch of teams like that. We’re promised five more. Who knows beyond that? This is the way I believe this team needs to play, so let’s get on the same page. Again, that’s what we can control, right now.”
The message was received.
“We control our destiny, and that’s like a luxury we have as a team. We can decide whether we want to maybe finish out in the NIT, not make a tournament, or make a run in the NCAA Tournament,” explains graduate senior Kerry Blackshear.
Added freshman Tre Mann, “basically he was just letting us know that it’s on us to decide where we want to go in the tournament…it kind of woke us up a little bit. Like we’re right around the corner so we don’t have time to be taking chances and stuff.”
After a stretch of losses in the middle of the season, this stocked roster looked poised to disappoint. Now they sit as a near guaranteed lock for the big dance and are floating around the nine to 10 seed according to ESPN Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi. While a higher seed is ideal, the point of course is simply to make the dance. From there, everyone must win. The Gators worked themselves off the bubble, winning six of their last eight with one of those losses coming at No. 10 Kentucky and affordable. Now they look towards the postseason as a team playing their best basketball at a time when you want to peak.
“I’d say like last few games we been playing real good. Kentucky we did good,” notes forward Keyontae Johnson, referencing the last month and the 65-59 loss at Rupp Arena that was tied at halftime.
“I feel like we playing more as a team than we was before, it’s just more ball movement and getting open shots and everybody shooting with confidence.
“Everybody just coming in, we still have a lot of things we can work on on defense but we all buying in on the floor. Tre Mann playing good on defense and Ques [Glover] is coming in, being like helpful for us when we get out the game, they just keeping the lead up for us and just everybody doing their job and that’s what Coach’s been preaching this whole season and we’re all just finally buying into it.”
Three things Johnson mentioned—the ball movement, open shots and defense—have been noticeably different the past month. Improvement in all three areas have helped the Gators evolve from a team liable to lose a double digit lead to a team that can jump out to a lead early and keep things relatively drama free. Even the tie in Lexington that then ended in a loss was never a meltdown so much as a punch for punch battle that ended in a home town flurry within the last minute. Take these examples.
Early in the win versus LSU, the Gators were up 14-4. Kerry Blackshear Jr. took a shot that was blocked, sending the ball back out towards the court. As a LSU defender went to close his hands on the ball, Johnson jumped in to nab the rebound out of his hands. He quickly sent it back around the arc to Scottie Lewis. The freshman phenom took a jump forward as if to shoot. While in mid-air, he zipped an assist to Andrew Nembhard waiting in the corner.
Nembhard’s 3 shot didn’t fall, but it was a good selection. What was taken from this play was the ball movement.
When the season began, Florida would take shots early in the shot clock, forcing errant jumps that had little to no chance of landing. “My shots,” White and players called them. So coaches began preaching, make the extra pass. Keep the ball moving and find the best shot.
Sometimes it’ll fall, sometimes it won’t, but the percentages are better when the opportunities are coming off of good selections as opposed to quick ones. Essentially, instead of forcing a bad shot in the first eight seconds simply to move fast, take the shot clock down to 0:08 and take a good shot.
“It’s literally very, very simple things,” explains Lewis.
“If two guys are on you, you pass the ball to the open guy. It’s those reads, valuing the ball. We would rather have a shot clock violation than to have teams be able take advantage off of turnovers. We had five turnovers [versus LSU] with a bunch of assists (17). Taking care of the ball, not allowing teams to run on us, staying together, making the right play and everyone is enjoying the process.”
Ball movement begets open shots, like the rainbow from Noah Locke late in the 2nd half that gave the 3-point sniper his stroke back. Or it opens lanes that lead to a five dunk night—it was like Captain Kirk was on the court, Scottie Lewis was being beamed so high—and leads to a well graded day for Mike White’s squad.
“We label them A’s, C’s and F’s,” explains White.
“Ultimately when we take an F shot, it’s on me and we’ll correct them on film or in a timeout. But we got a bunch of A’s there in the second half [versus LSU]. Noah Locke’s last three, beautiful. We’re getting pressured and do you hold on to it, do you allow them to go jump ‘em again. Well he’s a catch and shoot guy for us. When he’s open we want him to shoot it, that’s always an A. I thought Andrew, he, he wasn’t pressing for early clock, ball screen 3’s without any movement. He got that thing moving for us and fought pressure and he gotta back late clock often for open 3’s and sometimes you get great shots too, you get A shots that don’t go in and you can’t control that all the time.
“I don’t think [Scottie] took one [bad shot]…I remember a couple of F’s off the top of my head and he didn’t have one. When I watch film I’m sure we’ll as a staff find a couple more that weren’t very good. But for the most part our shot selection was as good as it’s been and the ball moved and it got back to other guys. We passed up some pretty good ones to get better ones. Played late clock a few times especially with the lead which showed some maturity, some growth and you know Scottie is an example of that. Noah’s gotten better with his shot selection. He took some steps backwards in Lexington. Andrew took only really good shots [verus LSU] I thought. We’re just best off, we’re not an isolation team, we’re not a ‘this guy can go get 20 let just continue to play off him.’ We’re a team that we have found out when the ball moves, when we share it, when we—again, when we strive to get our best shot, that’s when we’re at our best offensively.”
When at their best offensively, the defense can withstand a 25-point night from Emmitt Williams due to holding the rest of the team to 41 points. The Tigers notched only four fast break points and never led at any point in the night. Coming in to the game, Will Wade’s group was second in the league, averaging 40.1 rebounds per game. The two came away tied on the night for 33 as Florida kept LSU off the glass where they typically abuse opponents.
Now, they prepare for a final stretch and an offseason where they’ll look to do what so many in the pre-season thought was inevitable. Mike White still thinks this team is capable of a deep run. And he’s breaking his own rules and talking about it with them now. The message isn’t anything new, but the messenger is and that’s what Scottie Lewis feels is inspiring this team.
“I think more so [him] saying that we have the capability and the pieces to win the tournament—the SEC and the NCAA Tournament. He knows that if we play at the highest level the way we know we can, there’s not too many teams that can beat us.
“Coach White said it a couple times throughout the year, but [Wednesday] he made it clear- he knows that if we play at the level that we know we can play at and our staff knows we can play at, we can compete with anyone and we can beat anyone in college basketball. He made that clear today and that definitely gave us a lot of confidence hearing that from our head coach.”