As Scottie Lewis looked up and down the court and around the bench at those sitting next to him, something stood out, something he hadn’t seen in a while.
“Everyone just looked like they were having fun cause everyone was playing their part and everyone was getting touches and we were getting stops and just the vibe around the team was really good.”
The game was winding down in route to the Florida Gators defeating the Arkansas Razorbacks 73-59 to move to 17-9, 9-4 in the SEC. For a team that teetered on the precipice of .500 in the middle of an unsure season, the win and the record provided breathing room heading in to the last stretch of the season and tournament play.
“When we, like a game when we had the lead down or we get in foul trouble, we’ll be moping around, not like just playing for fun, being tense, not shooting with confidence,” recalls forward Keyontae Johnson.
“Then the Arkansas game we came out strong, like the first 15 minutes we came out hard and just everybody was hitting shots, everybody was into it, the bench was into it. I feel like it stated with the bench, whoever came off the bench, the sixth man or whoever, they came in with the energy and it just carried over to the whole game.”
And for Scottie Lewis, that fun provided confidence for that stretch.
“If we keep that up I think we’re gonna make a bigger stretch towards the end of the season.”
The end of the Gators season though comes with numerous potential pitfalls and slip-ups. On Saturday, Florida will travel to Kentucky to take on the No. 10 Wildcats. They’ll then return home for a rematch against LSU before hitting the road to face Tennessee and Georgia. Then on March 7, UF and Kentucky will close out the regular season back in Gainesville. The SEC Tournament begins in Nashville on March 11.
As the rankings currently stand, the Gators are in a three way tie for 2nd in the SEC along with Auburn and LSU. Florida split the games with those two teams. Kentucky, at 11-2, is in sole possession of 1st place. At this point though, that will largely only affect who gets a banner to hang in the rafters. Each team is projected to make the field for the NCAA Tournament with the Gators at a No. 9 seed according to bracket expert Joe Lunardi.
So how do the Gators navigate this minefield? It begins in Lexington this weekend and it will have to be done in transition. If there was one thing Florida left the Arkansas game still concerned about, it was transition defense. It’s what head coach Mike White, Lewis and Johnson all pin-pointed as the key to the game and it’s what has received the bulk of their attention in preparation as Keyontae Johnson explains.
“Recently Coach White has put like an ‘X’ down for the crash guys, where to crash at for this game. So like, he doesn’t want us to behind the defender, like the ball goes, he doesn’t want us to be behind the defender, so we can get back in transition, and then he gave certain guys who can crash and who not to. So I feel like people should buy into it and get back.”
Adds Scottie Lewis, “[Kentucky’s] very up and down. Obviously transition [defense] is one of our focal points, one of our deficiencies around this time of the season and they’re really, really good at that. So the more we score and the more we can stop the ball earlier, the better chance we’ll have of winning the game. They wanna play full court; they have a lot of athletes in Nick Richards who runs the floor and Ashton Hagans who’s pushing the ball and obviously they’re historic for having wings who love to run. So if we can slow them down and force them to play in the half court, it puts us in a better position to win.”
Arkansas scored 14 points against Florida Tuesday night off of fast breaks. Kentucky scored nine fast break points against LSU earlier this week.
Barring a complete meltdown, the Gators have won enough games to be a near lock for the NCAA Tournament in March. On a young team stocked with talent, getting to this point has taken letting go of what Johnson called “my turn shots” and instead looking for the open man.
“We’re just playing well as a team together. I feel like we’re learning each other more as the games go by.”
As they’ve learned more of each other, so have we. Winning five of their last six is a direct result of the squad playing more cohesively which comes from figuring out each guy’s strengths and how they can be complemented as a teammate. Here’s what they’ve discovered.
In the last nine minutes of the win against Arkansas, all but three moments (a layup and two rebounds) came courtesy of Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson. The two sophomores accounted for the points, rebounds, forced turnovers, steals; they did it all. At one point, Johnson shot a three from one corner, watched it rim out, got a screen from Nembhard and made it to the other side to grab his own rebound.
“Coach, he been preaching motor and I just try to like use that, that play is for me is motor for him and it had Coach White smiling so I feel like he see that I’m out there trying to hustle for my team.”
The play was a good snapshot but not out of the ordinary. As Johnson has become more and more comfortable behind the three point line (shooting 39%, behind only Noah Locke) teams have had to stretch out to cover the forward. From the four spot, Johnson has picked teams apart. On Tuesday, he took advantage of the empty lane and crashed in to draw 17 fouls, converting 15 times at the line. He’s leading the team averaging 16 points a game during the month of February and has three double-double’s in the last four games.
“I think he gives us a lot of energy…it’s almost impossible to stop. He’s a really strong guard that can get to the rim. It’s hard to stop him,” notes guard Noah Locke.
As the floor general, Nembhard has gotten a grasp on his team and serves as—what White describes—one of the best passers in the league. He is averaging 14.2 points a game this month and leads the team with an average of 5.5 assists per game and he’s gotten help all around the court. Kerry Blackshear got into foul trouble against Arkansas, something that Mike White has communicated can’t happen in order to beat Kentucky. But when “KJ” is on the court, he changes everything about the Gators.
"If KJ can touch the ball every possession, the plus-minus of this team is going to be ridiculous,” says Lewis.
“He's not someone who is caught up within himself, he knows he's our best player. He's one of our best playmakers, and when he touches the ball and he and Andrew are on the same page, it makes the rest of us look better. It makes the team look better, and our connectivity from the outside looking in and the inside looking out is on point."
With the regular season entering it’s last grind and then tournament play on the horizon, Blackshear’s last season experience from Virginia Tech will make him even more valuable.
Says White, “We’ll rely upon him heavily on the court, off the court, moving forward as we have all season as well as these sophomores. These are the four guys that for the most part are the models, who have that type of experience.”
Blackshear—along with freshman Omar Payne—has been vital under the basket. But it’s the sharp shooter from outside that has helped turn the tide of Florida’s season during the month of February. He’s averaging 13.8 points per game this calendar month and is shooting 55% from beyond the arc during that time. His 53% from 3-point land during league play is 3rd overall nationally.
Guarding him is a tall task. Just ask the teams best defender, Scottie Lewis.
“I think it’s hard to guard Noah now just because the way we move the ball and his ability to search and kind of find the open spot on the floor and kind of hide in a way — which is still surprising to me people are leaving him open as much as he is. He does such a good job doing that, he’s always in the right spot to score so if I was going to guard him I’d probably stay attached to him and stick to our principles.
“He knows when the defender is guarding him, if he’s turning his head and ball watching, stuff like that, kinda moving or if Andrew or myself or Keyontae drives, he’s searching for the open spot, making sure the defender is kinda baiting, kinda pick your poison; 'he’s either gonna let Andrew or Keyontae to the basket or give me an open 3,’ so he’s really good at reading that.”
And then there’s Scottie himself. Mike White has seen Lewis boldly take on responsibilities as a leader in practice and games, often coaching from the bench or gathering teammates during timeouts.
“Scottie Lewis has picked it up in terms of leading by example and communicating at a high level in the last month. Part of the reason that he’s playing better. I think he’s in a good place.”
The outspoken and confident freshman who worked his way into the starting lineup has held himself to a higher defensive standard all year and it’s paying off; he leads Florida in steals (31) and blocked shots (33). It’s why he has the leeway to preview his matchup with Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey (13.9 ppg) by saying, “my 7’1” wing span. That’s how I guard Tyrese Maxey.
“I been playing against Maxey since I was in 5th grade. Playing against all these guys on that team, I’ve known for a really long time so I’m not going into the game like thinking I need to do anything that I haven’t done for the last couple of years of my life. So I’m gonna guard the way I guard and whoever has to step up to the plate and try to score on me, good luck to them.”
On Tuesday against Arkansas, there was a moment, just over a minute and a half into the second half when Florida was technically punished but it was for something which Mike White and this team had been looking. The Razorbacks had been on a 17-5 to that point and White was forced to call a timeout early in the period. As the Gators huddled together, the Hogs Adrio Bailey came and stuck his head into the Florida scrum. Johnson and Locke both reached out to push him out and Locke was called for a technical after Bailey’s Oscar worthy flop.
“They reacted the way I wanted them to,” admitted Bailey following the game.
But it was also the way Florida wanted to react.
Earlier in the season, White reamed his players for letting an opponent step fully into their huddle and fool all five that he was a part of their team. When Bailey tried the same trick, it was against a different Gators team.
“I just say, he’s just trying to come in the huddle, I feel like it’s disrespectful. It’s like somebody trying to come in your house and we trying to protect our house,” poses Johnson.
Now the Florida Gators will take that connectivity, their improved offense and lessons learned this week about transition defense into Lexington. It’s the start of the hardest part of the season—the last leg. Scottie Lewis knows they’re ready.
“I think we’re capable of going undefeated in the rest of the SEC play as long as we stick to what we’ve been doing and playing to our principles.”