Thoughts of the Day: January 6, 2020

KEYONTAE JOHNSON IS FLORIDA’S GLUE GUY

A game turned Saturday night at the O-Dome on a play that most will overlook. Trailing Alabama, 46-25, with two minutes to go in the first half, Florida’s Scottie Lewis launched a jump shot that caromed off the rim toward the foul line. Keyontae Johnson, who had delivered the pass to Lewis, cut between two defenders for a hustle rebound that he kicked out to Andrew Nembhard. Nembhard saw Noah Locke cutting toward the basket and delivered a chest high pass. A couple of dribbles into the lane with Kira Lewis Jr. on his hip, Locke came to a jump stop then faded away from Lewis and three taller Alabama defenders. His jumper bounced softly on the rim twice before dropping through the net with 1:52 to go.


A rally began on that hustle play.


If Johnson doesn’t sprint to the ball, it’s an Alabama rebound and the Crimson Tide could have built the lead to 23 or 24 points down at the other end of the floor. Instead, however, the final two minutes belonged to the Gators, who got a couple of free throws from Kerry Blackshear Jr. and a three-pointer at the horn by Andrew Nembhard to go with a couple of defensive stops. The 21-point Alabama lead was trimmed to 14, still a lot of points, but psychologically far more manageable than trailing by 20 or more.


It wasn’t lost on Alabama coach Nate Oates.


“With two minutes to go we were up 21 and they go in only down 14,” Oates said after the Gators (9-4, 1-0 SEC) opened the SEC portion of their season with a 104-98 double-overtime win over Alabama (7-6, 0-1 SEC). “That was big. We go in up 20-25 that changes the entire game.”


The momentum from that seven-point mini-rally at the end of the half carried over to the second half when the Gators hit back-to-back three-pointers by Locke and Kerry Blackshear Jr. to bring what had once seemed insurmountable down to eight points.


Alabama would build back leads of 13 and 12 points but the Gators wouldn’t go away. In the final 7:44 of regulation, it seemed the Johnson was all over the floor helping to bring the Gators back. In the game’s final 17:44 (7:44 of regulation and two five-minute overtimes), Johnson scored all 10 of his points, grabbed five of his 12 rebounds, picked up a steal and assisted on the three-pointer that Blackshear hit with 17 seconds to go in regulation that brought UF back to within two points, setting the stage for Locke’s steal and layup that tied the game at 83-83 and sent it to overtime.


This was a win that required a maximum effort from all nine Gators who saw the floor but once again Johnson did all the little things it takes to create a win. He goes about his business quietly but with great intensity at both ends of the floor. So much of what he does for this team doesn’t get noticed in the box score, things like making the extra pass, setting screens, blocking out so well on the backboards that it creates a rebound for a teammate or playing lock down defense, often against someone three or more inches taller.


He doesn’t get the headlines as often as some of his better-publicized teammates, but I’m not at all convinced he would be happy with all the attention. He just seems quite content doing whatever it takes for the Gators to win.


THE 2020 FOOTBALL RECRUITING CLASS CONTINUES TO BUILD Is it my imagination or does Dan Mullen actually have a clue what he’s doing when it comes to recruiting? Since the Orange Bowl win over Virginia, Mullen has added to his 2020 recruiting class former five-star running back Lorenzo Lingard as a transfer from Miami and four-star wide receiver Xzavier Henderson (6-4, 180, Miami, FL Christopher Columbus), CJ’s younger brother. That bumps Florida to 7th in the 247Sports class rankings. If Penn State transfer Justin Shorter, a former five-star wide receiver, gets word that he’s been accepted academically at Florida, there is every good chance he will enroll this week. As this class continues to build, we’re seeing how Mullen and his staff are filling the holes in the roster with quality players. Florida’s 2020 roster will be the deepest it has been since 2010 at every position.


SOME OTHER MONDAY MEANDERINGS (1) This is decision day for Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Cecil Hurt, the highly respected sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News told me Saturday night that even though it makes business sense for Tua to declare for the NFL he might return to Alabama for his senior season. “I really think he wants to come back,” Cecil told me, citing Tua’s desire to go out with a national championship. My conclusion after this conversation and reading as much as I can regarding the pending decision is that if Tua has received quality information that he will be selected top five or top ten in the NFL Draft he will declare. If it’s not top ten, then I think he will return. We will know at noon when Tua and Nick Saban hold a press conference in Tuscaloosa.


(2) Despite reports that Mississippi State and Billy Napier’s agent have been conducting talks while Napier preps Louisiana-Lafayette for tonight’s LendingTree Bowl game with Miami (Ohio), Napier said Sunday that he “is not” a candidate for the HBC job in Starkville. Now, all that could change Tuesday morning when Napier’s season is finished but if what he is saying is the gospel truth, then all eyes will turn to these coaches: Bill Clark (UAB), Mark Hudspeth (Austin Peay), Blake Anderson (Arkansas State) and Joe Judge (New England Patriots special teams coordinator and former MSU safety). Clark or Anderson would be perfect fits for the job. They both have proven records of winning while getting the most out of the available talent and neither one would have to make an adjustment when it comes to understanding the culture in rural Mississippi.


(3) Former Florida assistant and Alabama head basketball coach Anthony Grant has Dayton 13-2 and ranked #20 in the latest Associated Press poll. The Flyers rank #7 in the kenpom.com ratings. Dayton might have the best basketball player you haven’t heard about this year in Obi Toppin, a 6-9 sophomore who is averaging 19.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He’s shooting 62.7% overall from the field and 36.8% from the 3-point line.


(4) There are only two remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball – 8th-ranked Auburn (13-0) and 13th-ranked San Diego State (15-0). I think both Auburn and San Diego State are very good basketball teams, but wouldn’t classify either one as a particularly great team. I think there are about 25 or 30 teams right now that are capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. I think there are a lot of really good teams, just not one that I would classify as great – at least not yet. That could change in February when two or three teams put it all together and get hot at just the right time, but for now, I don’t think there is a single team out there that we can say has an exceptional chance to make the Final Four.


(5) There are a growing number of people calling for the NCAA to tweak the targeting rules once more, this time giving the zebras the option of a targeting one or targeting two, similar to college basketball’s flagrant one and flagrant two. If amended, a targeting one would result in a 15-yard penalty but the player could remain in the game, but a targeting two would result in expulsion from the game plus the 15-yard penalty. Currently targeting – if the call on the field is confirmed by the replay booth or if the replay booth reviews a play and calls targeting even if the zebras on the field do not – results in a 15-yard penalty and ejection from the game. The rules state that a player whose targeting call is upheld, will have to miss the rest of the game but be eligible to play in the next if the targeting was called in the first half; miss the rest of the game and the first half of the next game if the call happens in the second half.


GOOD QUOTES FOR MONDAY Theo Lawson of the Spokane (WA) Spokesman-Review on a potential landing spot for former Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks: “According to a Spokeman-Review source, Florida coach Dan Mullen recommended that former Gators quarterback Feleipe Franks take a serious look at the Cougars and consider spending his final college season in Pullman in order to ‘get developed by Leach.’”


From Will Sammon of The Athletic, Miami Christopher Columbus coach Dave Dunn on the little things that make his player – and Florida commitment Xzavier Henderson – stand out: “We would use our media center during lunch because we didn’t have a period where all the kids in this class had the exact same time off, but they all ate lunch together. So we would grab their lunch and we’d go to the media center. And so I was talking to one of our assistant coaches and I looked over and Xzavier, by himself, without anyone even telling him to do it, he was walking up and down the aisles picking up anything that was there. You know, it’s like a college classroom setting where the little desks could kind of fold up and you could push them back down. He put every desk back down and put every seat chair up – without anybody telling him. He would do things like that. You would say something to him once that was important, and he just has a maturity about him.”


RANDOM THOUGHTS: When the NFL season began back in September would any of you have put money on the New England Patriots and Tom Brady ending their season with a loss in the Wild Card game? … Quarterback Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles left Sunday’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks with a head injury after he took a hit to the head by Jadeveon Clowney. The NFL deemed the hit “incidental contact” and Clowney was neither flagged for a personal foul penalty nor ejected for targeting … Not that anyone was holding his breath, but the Dallas Cowboys announced Sunday that they would not seek a contract extension with head coach Jason Garrett. Garrett’s contract officially expires January 14. The announcement is a kind way of saying Garrett was fired. Garrett was still technically the head coach over the past weekend when the Cowboys interviewed former NFL head coaches Marvin Lewis and Mike McCarthy … The New Orleans Saints lost in the NFC Championship Game on a blown pass interference call. They lost in the NFC Wild Card game with the Minnesota Vikings Sunday when the zebras ignored a blatant offense pass interference call in the end zone against Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph … Since the introduction of the McDonald’s All-America team for high school basketball back in 1977, UCLA has had at least one McDonald’s AA on its basketball roster. Well, until this year, that is. The Bruins are now 8-7 under first year coach Mick Cronin.

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