For about five minutes Saturday night, the O-Dome was rocking as the Florida Gators were making shots and looking every bit like a team capable of knocking off the number one team in the nation. Then Baylor adjusted, reality set in and the very experienced Bears went into their defensive lock down mode. For the next 35 minutes, the O-Dome crowd, a national television audience and, of course, the Gators got a clinic in playing the game at its highest level. The Bears were ever so efficient no matter which end of the floor they were playing and looked every bit the part of the nation’s number one team.
The final score read Baylor 72, Florida 61. The Gators might have made it closer if they hadn’t gone empty on four straight possessions, three of which ended with misses on the front end of one-and-ones, but it wasn’t a complete embarrassment like the loss to Missouri was a couple of weeks ago. There is no explaining what happened in the Missouri loss. At least in losing to Baylor, the Gators lost to a team that is national championship capable and is the best defensive team that has played in the O-Dome since 2012 Kentucky.
No, this wasn’t an embarrassing loss. Humbling? Yeah, you could say that because it seemed for much of the game like Baylor was playing with grown men and the Gators were countering with boys. Baylor is tough, physical, experienced and older. The Gators are still learning how to be tough, still lacking the kind of physicality you see in teams like Baylor, Butler and Florida State and we are reminded once again that this UF team is still trying to get a handle on this maturity thing. Whereas every ball game is just another day at the office for Baylor, every ball game is an adventure for Florida because Mike White never really knows which Gators will show up.
That’s the difference between Baylor and Florida. Scott Drew knows what he’s going to get from his team every single ball game because they are disciplined and play to their strengths every time out. White isn’t really sure what he will get from the Gators because like every team that’s young and inexperienced it’s not always the same growing pains that show up every single night. If White knew which pains would be prevalent on which nights, he could plan accordingly. This is a team that desperately needs to grab hold of maturity and never let go.
Here are a few observations about Saturday night and Florida in general 19 games into a 31-game season.
Florida had serious problems with Baylor’s quickness on the defensive end. Baylor can guard the perimeter, slough off to swarm the basketball when it is dumped in the paint and can get back into a guarding position when the ball gets kicked back out. The way to beat a team like that is to make that extra pass, but too often the Gators were too deep in the shot clock. In the second half, the Gators had and missed a lot of open perimeter shots because they hesitated, halfway expecting a Baylor defender to come flying at them the way they did in the last 10 minutes of the first half.
The Gators have to get Dontay Bassett healthy. The 10-12 minutes he can give the front court off the bench is critical. Baylor had some difficulties when both Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Omar Payne were in the game together but when one of them had to sit for rest or foul trouble, UF had to go with a smaller lineup and Baylor took advantage of its size advantage.
One of the reasons the Gators were ranked so highly at the beginning of the season was due to the high expectations on the play of Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Lewis is an elite defender, but he’s erratic offensively and he is hesitant to use that explosiveness and leaping ability taking the ball to the rack. I think Mann would be much further along had he not suffered that concussion. Prior to the concussion he was decisive and fearless when he drove the basketball. Now he lacks the confidence to drive the ball and he thinks too much about his jumper. I saw him in high school and know what he’s capable of doing with the ball in his hand. Unless Lewis and Mann can get a measure of confidence and start contributing at a consistently high level, the Gators are going to have too many nights when they struggle. Florida isn’t a terribly deep team so having Mann and Lewis able to deliver off the bench is critical to long term success.
In the first half Saturday night, Mann delivered six points and two contested rebounds when he literally snatched the ball away from taller, more physical Baylor defenders. He neither scored again nor grabbed another rebound. Chalk that up to confidence. In the second half when the Gators were trying to mount a comeback from 16 down, Lewis drove the baseline and instead of going vertical and either dunking or getting fouled, he passed to Noah Locke in the corner. Baylor closed fast on Locke who passed to Keyontae Johnson on the wing. Johnson’s shot missed. The right move was to go skyward and force the issue. This isn’t the first time that’s happened. These guys are freshmen and they’re playing like freshmen. The Gators desperately need them to grow up now.
Noah Locke got only five shots (1-5). Shooters have to shoot and shooters who can heat up the way Locke can have to be given a chance to get it going. He’s shown that he can light it up quickly and knock down 3-4 shots in a row but he can’t if nobody gets him the basketball when he’s in shooting position.
What does it take to get a whistle when Kerry Blackshear Jr. is getting mugged? Baylor’s strategy, it seemed, was to pound on him until the zebra crew started tooting the whistles. When they didn’t toot, Baylor got even more aggressive. Blackshear got five shots off (made three). Maybe it’s just my imagination but I think he’s starting to get frustrated that he can’t get a call. I haven’t seen anyone who gets beat up the way Blackshear does.
I love the way Ques Glover plays with so much energy but he’s a defensive liability. Unfortunately, until the coaches see enough of Mann at the point to give him the ball, Glover has to play the point when Andrew Nembhard sits. Glover plays very hard, but he gets overpowered by bigger guards as we have seen in the last two games with LSU and Baylor. When Glover is in the game, White is going to have to figure out a way to give him some defensive help.
Omar Payne is a work in progress. Be patient. He’s going to be really, really good. He’s going to have great games like the one last weekend against Auburn and then have games like the one against Baylor when his inexperience showed in the way the Bears pushed and shoved him around. He needs some more muscle and he has to learn how to fight back. It will happen and when it does he’s going to do some amazing things, but for now, just consider him a work in progress.
Keyontae Johnson is absolutely fearless and trusts his game enough to know that if he keeps doing the things he knows he does well, he’ll have success. Even if he gets his shot stuffed back in his face, he will keep driving to the rim and eventually will get it going. He’s not an elite defender like Lewis, but he’s Florida’s most consistent defender. Doesn’t do the spectacular things defensively, but he rarely gets caught out of position and he makes it very tough for opponents to score on him.
Andrew Nembhard goes through some very unproductive stretches on both ends of the court, but when he shakes off those mini-funks and gets zoned in, he can be quite spectacular. In the last two games he’s scored 31 points to go with 18 assists. For Florida to be good down the stretch Nembhard has to elevate his game and eliminate those four and five minute stretches when nothing gets accomplished.
The Gators are 12-7 with a six-game stretch of Mississippi State, (at) Vanderbilt, Georgia, (at) Ole Miss, (at) Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. The Gators should win all five of these games if they’ll make some shots and avoid another Missouri nightmare. These are six games in which the Gators need to get completely healthy and get Lewis and Mann untracked. If the Gators are 18-7 by the time they face that four-game gauntlet of Arkansas, (at) Kentucky, LSU and (at) Tennessee, they will be closing in on their fourth straight NCAA bid.
This is still a talented enough team to make a deep run in March but for that to happen the Gators have some growing up to do and have to get the freshmen untracked once and for all.