The time is now for Gators to make a turn

If you ask Andrew Nembhard, the reasoning is fairly simplistic in theory.

“I just think we weren’t playing hard enough on the defensive side of the ball.”

The Florida Gators point guard stood in a scrum of reporters following the Gators 72-61 loss to No. 1 Baylor and the sophomore, notoriously known for already being the quiet one on a team bursting with personalities, spoke even lower than normal in a tone that could be considered somber if it weren’t for the words that were carrying with them a message he wanted resonated.

“They’re a great team and all. I definitely wanna give them their credit but I think it was more of what we didn’t do compared to what they were doing.

“[We] lost it, focus in the first half, defensively and offensively. Started relaxing defensively and they capitalized.”

The relaxation came on the heels of a hot start. Florida led by four at the first media timeout and had shot 70% up to that point. On the other end, the defense was smothering, leaving Baylor wide open for some shots but also forcing the Bears into five early turnovers.

Each set was poised for success as guys moved with ease, set proper screens and were in place for an assist with impeccable timing. Then, a little more than 12 minutes in, they let themselves look away from each other, assumed each shot would fall like they had been and things began to fall apart.

“Maybe [it’s] comfortability with a lead,” pondered Nembhard, continuing, “just not understanding that we gotta play 40 minutes to beat any team in our league, any team that’s a caliber of [Baylor].”

From the bench, head coach Mike White saw the shift as well. What’s worse, he’s seen it before.

“We didn’t defend very well in Baton Rouge. We were, this team early in the season was—” here White gave a long pause allowing the silence to speak to his slight befuddlement at this team’s progression paralleling regression.

“—our defensive numbers were a lot better than they are right now. Our offensive numbers are much better right now than they were a month ago, we all know that. We’ve gotten a lot better offensively. Defensively, there’s a bunch of factors right as to why we didn’t give Baylor a better game. Accountability is probably first and foremost and the more that we can grow our bench defensively, I think the more we can hold our starters more accountable.

“Some of it obviously is experience. Some of it is at times maybe playing a couple of guys that we rely on pretty heavily, extended minutes, maybe too often; that’s on me, we gotta evaluate that. And then again, going back to earlier, some of I think is the fact that we’ve lost a little bit of edge as we see the ball going through the net more.”

Acknowledging the problem is the first step, but then comes the painful step…how do you fix it?

“If I knew we would’ve defended better [Saturday],” quipped White.

“I don’t know how to fix it honestly,” echoed Nembhard.

Part of the issue is that this exist much more in the mindset than the game plan. Asking someone to change how they view the game is infinitely more difficult than simply changing a play. As Mike White explained early in the season, his role as a head coach this year has been more about directing the psychology of the athlete as opposed to the offense or defense. There are still lessons to be learned for the young team but immaturity is no longer an excuse.

“We’ve got to continue to develop our young guys for sure. I’m not going to sit here and say we lost that game because we’re young, we lost that game because Baylor is better than us,” admitted White.

“And our young guys have to improve, but our sophomores do too, and KJ [Kerry Blackshear Jr.] does too, and I do too. All of us, we just have to get better. We don’t sit here with our team and talk about how young we are. We’ve got to find a way regardless of age, experience, girth, how many summers we’ve had in the weight room.”

So age isn’t a reason. This far into the calendar, gelling isn’t a reason. But what was it that allowed Baylor to go on a 15-6 run to pull ahead and close out the first half? What was it that gave up enough three pointers that the Bears shot sheet looked like a rainbow? Luckily for the Gators, this is an answer they do have.

“Just know that every possession counts,” said sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson.

“Just playing, playing the full 40 minutes on both sides of the floor and staying connected and playing together, biggest thing,” echoed Nembhard as to what they learned in the loss.

And just in case the message wasn’t getting across with the team leaders, Mike White has preached it ad nauseam of late.

“We’ve gotta learn, this team has to learn—and this is what we’ve been preaching lately—that every position potentially is the winning possession of the game, every possession and we’ve gotta stay in that position. And that takes maturity and we’re immature team right now and from a mental toughness standpoint, we’re nowhere near what it takes to be a championship level team.”

There has been one freshman who has stood out in this way. Guard Scottie Lewis is oft lauded for his defensive prowess and deservedly so. But when the Gators got down and appeared lackadaisical, it was Lewis who demanded they stay focused on the game at hand. He yelled from the bench, he blocked shots, he gathered his teammates around him after a foul and calmed them down for the next possession. And when the officials called a ball Baylor’s way when it appeared to be Florida’s, Lewis argued his case then stood in defense for the in-bounds and harassed the pass to the point of a turnover.

"He’s always been that guy that gives us energy and I think when he has a lot of energy, it makes our team a lot better cause we all feed off of his energy so we need that be consistent all day and every day honestly, for us to win,” pointed out Nembhard.

If there was any time for a message to sink in and a new motto adapted, for Lewis, the freshmen and the entire team, it’s now. The Gators have 12 regular season games left. The harrowing stretch of Auburn, LSU and Baylor now behind them with at least one win to show with their scars means Florida turns its attention to Mississippi State (12-7, 3-3), Vanderbilt (8-11, 0-6) and Georgia (11-8, 1-5) before heading to Oxford to face the Ole Miss team they beat 71-55 in mid-January.

Said Nembhard, “this is the time, this is the time, definitely. We’re kinda counting down our games, I think 12 more games left, regular season, so we gotta make that turn right now, get kinda a streak going for sure.”

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