Defense is the path to success for Florida basketball

They got a bad taste in their mouth in Knoxville in the middle of last week and the Florida basketball team hopefully learned a big lesson in the 14 point loss that could have been much worse. The team came out flat and played horribly defensively, something they have rarely done and in turn notched their only loss in SEC play in three tries.

In their third match up in a row against a very good offensive team, Florida travels to Texas A&M on Tuesday and head coach Mike White believes his guys understand that his team understands they have to be on par defensively and their energy level has to be peaked.

“In their defense we’re asking my guys to play at such a high level of intensity because we’re masking some offensive deficiencies,” White said under stating a lack of offensive production so far in this 10-5 season. “We can’t afford to have a ‘C’ game defensively and on the glass because we aren’t good enough offensively.

“Maybe we’ll have one of those games, because we had one earlier against one of the mid-major teams earlier, where we go 11-19 from the three, and then you can have an average defensive game. It would be insane for us to think that we could count on that happening. The maturity level of this team, the consistency… it’s probably similar makeup to last year from everything that I hear and what I see on film from last year. Would I like to think it is improving a little bit, I’d like to, but you’re only as good as your last one. Coming off of a good one, I certainly hope we get the same intensity level tomorrow night. We need it to have a shot.

This Florida team struggles offensively, there is no doubt. They are 11th in scoring, but last in the SEC in shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage, and free throw percentage. They get more shots because they play the game fast and are second in the conference in turnover margin, but more times than not, they just can’t find the hole in the basket.

“It isn’t that we aren’t good,” White said. “We aren’t shooting it very well. We have 3-4 guys that have gotten off to a bad start with their percentages. Collectively as a free throw percentage team we aren’t great as you know. We’re better in practice shooting the ball and shooting free throws than we were 2-3 months ago. It is significant. We put them through these peer pressure drills and these percentage drills that they have to obtain these marks that they have to hit or they run and they are running a lot less than earlier. When it translates to games it remains to be seen.

“We have good players. We are one of the best defensive teams in the country and that is because we have good players. It isn’t a matter of telling these guys they aren’t good. It is a matter that the message continues to be until we shoot a much higher percentage we better hang our hat on the things that we can control.

“We have done that several times. We have had several games where I was extremely proud of our defensive effort. Unfortunately we have to have that every night.”

The defense is the reason they have won twice as many games as they have lost.

White is happy about his team’s rebound from the loss in Knoxville last week. A huge home win against LSU showed a Florida team that still had the same offensive issues, but played as hard as ever against the best offensive team in the SEC and holding them 22 points under their average. There are things that stand out about this unit at this point in time.

“Just the resilience, the physical effort, the pride and character in which they displayed,” he said about what stands out. “It was ugly in Knoxville and Tennessee had a lot to do with that. We’re a team that has some deficiencies and are a work in progress. As we continue to struggle from three and the foul line, we have to be really, really good defensively and that has to be our identity. I think it is harder for that to be the identity on a consistent basis. Doing a lot of the dirty work isn’t always fun, but when we don’t do that we’re exposed. In College Station we have to do that defensively against a really good offensive team, just to have a chance. If we make shots on top of that and get in a good offensive rhythm you never know what will happen.

“I know what will happen if we don’t come out correctly defensively. I thought we did that against LSU to give ourselves a chance. We played very hard. I thought our scouting report was very good. Dorian and John Egbunu in the front court led the charge with really good intensity. It sounds crazy to think we did a good job on Ben Simmons when you read the box score, but we did a good enough job forcing turnovers.

“If you look at our road games against the best opponents, the highest quality opponents that we played, our best performance was against Michigan State. That was a game that we simply battled and played as hard as any game we played this year. That is the intensity we have to match most importantly before we talk about doing anything else.”

Justin Leon coming on, staying level headed…

Junior college transfer Justin Leon has made a surprise move of sorts in the last two games. He has hit five 3-pointers in the last two contests, the most on the team and played hard. White doesn’t seem surprised, nor is he worried about his young forward getting a big head.

“Justin Leon is Justin Leon from the first day he’s been her until today,” White said. “Someone in the support staff suggested that we may need to watch Justin carefully because he experienced a little bit of success. We need to make sure he doesn’t change with his mentality. Yesterday he was out there winning wind sprints and competing at the highest level. That is what he is. He doesn’t have the most God given ability on our team, but he’ll continue to be a blue collar worker for us. I will be very surprised if he gets out of character.”

Hill playing better coming off the bench…

Junior point guard Kasey Hill approached White several games ago about possibly coming off the bench. The big time prospect out of high school has all the physical tools to be a superstar, but his mind scrambles at points, especially when it comes to shooting from distance or free throws. Hill has responded pretty well from coming off the bench at this point in time.

“I don’t think he’s coming off of his best couple of games, but definitely the first few after he decided to have that conversation with me were his best games,” White said. “I want to say that his best three games were immediately following that conversation.

“I don’t know if it took pressure off of him or it allowed him to see the game from a front row seat before he got into the game, watch the flow of the game before he experienced the flow… whatever factors led to that he definitely played better. We hope we can get him back to playing that well tomorrow night.”

With Hill out, sophomore Chris Chiozza has taken the helm at point guard and played pretty well. He wasn’t fazed at all by getting the nod.

“We try not to make a big deal about starting and not starting,” White said. “In fact, we don’t even have conversations with these guys until we put the starting lineup on the board before the game. ‘I want you to guard this guy, and I want you to guard this guy’. Unsurprisingly, Chris Chiozza didn’t change his face and he rarely does.”

Rimmer a big addition for different reasons…

Junior Schuyler Rimmer returned Saturday after missing a few games and the big bodied center helps out in different ways when he can be inserted into the lineup. One important help is in pushing starting center John Egbunu.

“He helps take a little bit of pressure off of John and may add a little bit of healthy pressure to John knowing that Schuyler is another guy he will compete with on a daily basis for playing time,” White said of Rimmer. “As we continue to emphasize inside – outside, just paint touches, taking really good threes, Schuyler is another guy we can throw in the post to and may not be our best low post scorer, but our best low post passer. He’s also a great scouting report guy, a great teammate. We’ll give Schuyler opportunities for the rest of the year as long as he is healthy, because I think he brings a lot to the table for us.”

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