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For a team that has advanced to the Sweet 16 in five straight NCAA Tournament appearances, something seems off about the Florida Gators’ trip to the New York Regional semifinals.
Maybe it’s that the Gators lost three of their last four games entering the tournament and appeared to be a shell of the team that was victorious in nine straight contests this season. Maybe it’s that no one on Florida’s roster outside of senior point guard Kasey Hill had a lick of NCAA Tournament experience before March 16. It could be that Mike White, the 2017 SEC Coach of the Year who himself did not have a single game of NCAA Tournament coaching experience, looked like he had lost patience with a Florida team that was not sticking to the principles that led it to so much success this season.
Whatever was ailing the Gators, two quasi home games in Orlando, Florida, and a continued lack of respect for their accomplishments and abilities were the perfect medicine.
“I’d rather [be disrespected] than the alternative,” said White this week as four-seed Florida prepared for the eight-seed Wisconsin Badgers. “I don’t know how much of a factor it plays, but I said it the other day: If you have a bullet in your chamber, you might as well use it. … Maybe it’s added motivation; maybe it’s not. Does it have anything to do with the outcome of the game? Heck, I don’t know. Probably very little.”
More integral to on-court victories are the overall buy-in to a coach’s game plan and execution of it by his players. That is where the Gators have been able to discover renewed intensity and efficiency that they have lacked over the last few weeks.
“It’s been a really mature group to work with in that regard; it’s been a fun group to work with,” White said. “It’s why we continue to improve, even this late in the year, on the defensive end.”
Perhaps no one has stepped up more on that end of the court than junior forward Devin Robinson, a five-star prospect out of high school that has always displayed incredible athleticism but lacked consistency. At times, Robinson has been unstoppable for Florida; he’s also been ineffective on plenty of occasions, failing to make up for a lacking offensive game by increasing his defensive intensity.
Consider that switch flipped.
“My defense changed. I just wanted to play it now,” Robinson said after the second-round victory over five-seed Virginia. “My early years, I didn’t really believe in playing defense effectively. But I know if you want to win games and try to win a championship, you have to play defense.
“If I want to have playing time, I had to play defense. So I knew I had to step up my intensity, change my technique a little bit, and just work on staying lower and just the little things and just wanting to play.”
In addition to harder coaching by White, a realization that he had the opportunity to “separate myself from everyone else in the country” by working his tail off on the defensive end certainly played into Robinson’s renewed focus on the grind.
For White, it has made a massive difference.
“It’s really satisfying. It’s been fun to watch him grow right before our eyes,” the coach said. “… He’s getting better every day. He’s in a great rhythm right now of growth. He continues to take steps in the right direction. It’s 99 percent Devin. He has bought into what we’ve asked him to do.
“My staff has done a great job with him. They’ve got strong relationships with him. … He’s just made some changes. He’s looked himself in the mirror and made some decisions that he’s going to try to defend and rebound at the highest possible level, play with a tremendous motor. Now we’re seeing more and more what he’s capable of on the offensive end. He’s earning 40 minutes, he’s earning 36 minutes because he’s turning into a really good defender and rebounder.”
Robinson is also getting it done on the offensive end, hitting 15-of-25 field goals and 4-of-9 threes for 38 points with 18 rebounds in NCAA Tournament play. Combine that with a tremendous 14-point, 10-board performance from senior F Justin Leon against UVA, and it’s been Florida’s frontcourt stepping up while the backcourt has done a near-180 from the end of the regular season.
“When [Robinson is] playing like that, he’s one of the best players in the country, and it makes us one of the best teams in the country,” said junior PG Chris Chiozza.
The Gators have relied on sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen and graduate transfer G Canyon Barry, their sixth man, to be the primary scorers all season. At the same time, Florida has found ways to be successful despite Hill and Chiozza being irresponsible with the ball, committing too many costly turnovers and jacking up ridiculous shots as opposed to distributing the rock calmly to their teammates.
However, over the last two games, Allen and Barry combined to go 5-for-29 from the field (Allen 2-for-21) with 25 total points, 13 of which came at the charity stripe (nine from Barry). Meanwhile, Hill and Chiozza have a somewhat-decent 1.25 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Hill has been more selective in his shot attempts, going 6-for-12 from the field.
“The three guards really jump out,” said Badgers coach Greg Gard in reference to Allen and the two point guards, “especially how Chiozza has played here in the last week or 10 days. [I’ve] been very impressed with the backcourt.”
Missing from the box scores is how Hill and Chiozza have locked down their opponents defensively, something they most certainly did in the Round of 32.
Virginia’s London Perrantes, who had double-digit outings in 12 of his prior 15 games and scored 24 points on 9-of-14 field goals in the first round of the tournament, was held to six points on 2-of-12 shooting on Saturday.
“Those two guys have been a terrific job all year utilizing their speed and quickness and toughness. Again, those guys… have become tough-nosed defenders. They take pride in it now, and at times we can even alternate them on really good players that are anywhere from [5-foot-8 to 6-foot-4], depending on the matchup,” explained White. “Despite their size, with their speed and quickness and toughness, it allows them some versatility in guarding guys off of the ball.”
It is for that reason that White is not as concerned about a lack of scoring from the group, particularly considering Barry’s efficiency at the line and the improvements made in the other facets of the game by Allen, Hill and Chiozza.
“Their ball security lately, the decisions that they’re making are another positive. All three are defending at a high level. All three are rebounding the ball better than they were earlier in the year,” White said.
“I like that KeVaughn has been aggressive. He’s taken good [shots]. I know he’s going to make shots. He’s going to make shots. He knows that. He’s a confident kid. The other two guys are taking good shots; they’re taking really good ones. …
“We’ve got other wings that can score it. Part of the reason that Devin and Justin Leon have fallen into some open looks is the fact that some of these other guys are passing up tougher ones earlier in the clock. Both of the point guards have been really good facilitators for us. I want KeVaughn to keep doing the same thing.”
It’s getting real now, and as such, the “other things” may not be enough against a Wisconsin team that is nearly neck-and-neck with Florida in efficiency on both ends of the court.
White has offered that the Gators’ biggest concern is defending the Badgers in the paint, which is a tougher task for UF considering the absence of redshirt junior center John Egbunu. While sophomore Kevarrius Hayes and — just recently — true freshman Gorjok Gak have made some strides, it’s going to need to be a team effort as Florida goes up against Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ
“They have two borderline All-American bigs that are both tough, physical, skilled, can score on the interior, can draw fouls on the interior and they both can pass it,” explained White. “And then you’ve got a seven or eight guys that can really shoot it led by [Bronson] Koenig, who is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. So that’s a pretty unique balance there. They present some issues and in trying to defend them.”
One weakness for Wisconsin is the terrible free throw shooting of Happ, who hits less than 50 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. White has no interest in running a Hack-a-Happ defense, due in large part to a lack of depth on Florida’s part. “We have got to use physicality and legality at the same time,” he said. “We have got to show our hands; we got to be very smart. Those guys just really understand how to draw fouls.”
No matter what happens Friday, and despite all of his team’s flaws and trials this season, White understands what the Gators have gone through just to get to the Sweet 16 and earn a second opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden this campaign.
“It’s a group I’ve been proud of all year,” he said. “I mean, this group, we might miss some shots. We might mess up some execution. We might have a lack of communication or an error in following the scouting report from time to time or what have you. But this group plays really hard. They play for each other. They play the right way.”
And with all the pressures on White to not only help a Florida team that missed consecutive NCAA Tournaments get back into the Big Dance and taste at least a level of the success that was demanded annually from his predecessor, one might think he has been able to accept what the Gators have already accomplished and take some pride in that himself … especially considering he’s defeated Florida’s first two tournament opponents by a combined 41 points.
“I’d like to think,” he said, “we have more basketball ahead of us.”