On Monday of last week, assessing what, if anything good had come out of Florida’s 91-75 loss to Missouri, a game that Mike White said was probably the worst defensive effort of any team he’d ever been associated with as a coach, White struggled to find something positive to say before offering the short answer, “Um, no.”
One week and two impressive wins later, White has the Gators looking nothing like the team that got its doors blown off by SEC bottom feeder Mizzou. In 16-point win (71-55) over Ole Miss back on Tuesday night, the Gators were focused defensively and while not at a peak level offensively, still good enough to overwhelm the visiting Rebels at the O-Dome. Saturday against then 4th-ranked Auburn, the Gators (12-5, 4-1 SEC) looked every bit like the team they were predicted to be in the preseason. They dominated on the defensive end. Once they got through a foul-plagued first half that saw White constantly juggling his lineup just to keep key players with two or fewer fouls, the Gators went about the business of solving the Auburn defense and got themselves into a serious offensive groove.
What the Gators did in the second half against Auburn can only be described as pillage and plunder. Florida’s 69-47 hammering of the Tigers had Bruce Pearl shaking his head and admitting the plans to make this a 94-foot game and a track meet failed, largely because the Gators handled the pressure on one end and then defensively wouldn’t let his point guards get into the lane where they could create decent shots for teammates. In that second half, the Gators shot 58.2% overall (16-29) and 62.5% from the three-point line (5-8) while holding Auburn to 8-26 overall (30.8%) and 23.1% from the three-point line (2-13).
It’s important to mention that the Gators went into halftime with a 28-23 lead, this in spite of 12 turnovers and only 8:26 of playing time for Kenyontae Johnson and 11:10 for Andrew Nembhard due to foul trouble. With Johnson and Nembhard out, the Gators had some real issues with the Auburn press that led to 12 points off turnovers. And then there were those foul issues that made the halftime score closer than it should be since Auburn shot 10-10 from the foul line (Gators only shot four, nine for the game … Auburn had 21).
It was at the break that White got the Gators re-focused on staying poised since they knew ahead of time that Auburn would continue bringing the defensive pressure in an attempt to get the game going at breakneck pace.
“I thought out guys just slowed down a little bit,” White said. “We talked a lot about it at halftime. I thought Auburn did a good job of rattling us and speeding us up [in the first half]. That’s what they’re good at. Side out, baseline out … their press … they’re elite. I think our guys made more sound decisions. Just slowed down a little bit, played off of two feet, made the extra pass, and didn’t pass to guys that were halfway guarded, tried to hit the open guy. And we simplified it a little bit. We rode Andrew (Nembhard) off a lot of ball screen stuff and he was really good.”
Nembhard really was good in the second half when he scored four of his six points for the game and four of his five assists. He consistently broke down the Auburn defense off the dribble. He was far more focused on moving the basketball than looking for his own shot (seven attempts, made three). With Nembhard in complete control of the offense, the Gators turned the ball over only three times in the second half and those were converted into two harmless points.
Just having Nembhard available to play the game was a bonus since White wasn’t sure on Friday if his sophomore point guard would even play after two straight days of battling the flu.
“This guy … we didn’t even know that he was going to play,” White said. “He literally didn’t do anything physically for two days and what a performance by him.”
The offense started with Nembhard but teammates delivered when they got the ball in scoring position. When they missed, freshman center Omar Payne was there to clean up. This was the game when Payne basically announced himself to the world. Auburn paid a price for Payne’s inspire play as the 6-10 freshman from Kissimmee scored 19 points, mostly on stickbacks. He was 9-9 shooting from the field (1-1 from the foul line) to go with 11 rebounds, an assist and a steal. Kerry Blackshear Jr. didn’t have a great scoring game (just 11 points) but he was a monster on the boards with 16 rebounds to go with two assists, a steal and a blocked shot. Noah Locke continued his hot shooting with 3-6 from the three-point line as part of his 11-point effort.
As good as the Florida offense was, especially in the second half, the story of the game – the story of the last two games – was the defensive transformation. The Gators went from a team that was always a step slow and perhaps a bit uninspired closing out the three-point line against Missouri (12-19 on three-balls) to one that has given up 7-39 (17.9%). There was no matador defense in the paint, either. Missouri outscored the Gators 40-14 in the paint but Ole Miss and Auburn combined for 36 (18 apiece).
What the Missouri game showed was the Gators are capable of losing any time out when they fail to bring the effort and intensity defensively. The Ole Miss win was a vast improvement from that disaster in Columbia but Ole Miss is a team that has yet to win an SEC game and the Rebels were playing without SEC leading scorer Brein Tyree. Auburn, on the other hand, made the Final Four last year and won its first 15 games of the season, rising to number four nationally. So, this game was a far better barometer of not just how far the Gators came in one week, but what they can do even against high level competition any time they show up ready to play.
“I guess it shows you that we’re pretty good, what we’re potentially capable of,” White said. “I don’t think that was Auburn’s best performance. I don’t want to take anything away from our guys either. And we’re such a young team I don’t know how many of those we’ll get.”
Maybe it wasn’t Auburn’s best performance, but the Gators had plenty to do with that. Florida showed up and played at an elite level and that is what is most important as the Gators turn their attention to Tuesday night in Baton Rouge when they will face off against LSU (13-4, 5-0 SEC). If the Gators play like they did against Missouri, it will be a bad night that leaves the impression that this team is still in its two steps forward, one step backward mode. If they’ve indeed turned the corner and the Ole Miss and Auburn games are an indicator of things to come, then this is a winnable game.
White knows what is possible.
“Simply put it shows you when we’re hitting on all cylinders we can beat a top ten team,” he said.