One game at a time in SEC’s for Gators

It is a clean slate as Florida head coach Mike White called it shortly after earning a victory at Missouri over the weekend. The Gators will be the 8th seeded team in the SEC Basketball Tournament this week and with that they have a chance to win some games and make some magic. Still, for White and company they are taking it one game at a time.

Just three weeks or so ago, the Gators were a game out of first place in the conference. A tough lot of games at the end of the SEC slate saw those hopes dwindle quickly and they are now tied at 8th, even though just two games out of being tied for third.

The Gators were a combined 4-0 against the two teams just ahead of them in the standings. The team they play Wednesday to start the tournament for Florida, Arkansas, they also beat in the only time the teams met this year.

There are some chances to do some damage, but things have to go right.

“Anything can happen,” White said as he talked to the Florida media on Monday. “My first year (as an assistant at Ole Miss) we were picked last in the league. We were an afterthought heading into the tournament and made it to the championship game. I’ve been a part of a one seed and been knocked out in the second round. Anything can happen in these tournaments.

“I remember Georgia making an unbelievable run in the tournament back in Atlanta.  We were a part at Ole Miss as an assistant their first game that really got them going in overtime against Ole Miss and it never ended for them, it was a great run.

“The SEC Tournament has a lot of history and a lot of memories for a lot of people.

“I think Kentucky is probably playing better than anyone else. Texas A&M has had a terrific year. I think after that you have another 6-7 teams who have a chance. It will be a fun thing to be a part of and interesting to watch it develop.”

With the mentality that they have a fresh start, White and company are treating this in a ‘one game at a time’ fashion. They only have their eyes set on Arkansas at the moment. With that in mind, the Gators will play whoever they have to play and how much they have to play them in order to win that game.

 “I think some teams have the luxury of thinking about some of those things,” White said when asked about player rotations and making sure guys don’t get burned out in any contest. “I’ve been there before and made some of those decisions that have helped us and some that I have regretted. For us, it is about whatever we have to do to beat Arkansas. If it’s five guys playing 40 minutes that are playing really well, which hasn’t been us, then so be it. That is all we are concerned with… that we can somehow beat the Hogs.”

Analysts and coaches alike use the cliché that tournaments are made for guards play. Florida hasn’t gotten consistent good play from their guards, but White certainly liked what he saw from his point guards against Missouri when between Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill, they combined for 26 points, 9 assists, 1 turnover, and 4 steals on the night. He would like to see that in every game and understands why the guards are so important in tournament play.

“I think we are coming off as good of a game where our point guards have played all year,” White said. “Between those two guys, I thought at the point we were really solid.

“I guess the theory behind guard play is that they have more of an opportunity to control more possessions than the bigs. Being on the ball defensively and having the ball more in their hands than other players.

“I think also another factor is late in the year more teams have more of an idea of what is coming defensively. For instance, we know what’s coming with Arkansas. Arkansas knows what we’re going to run against them. All of these matchups, especially late in the year and heading into conference tournaments, opposing coaches have done so much homework in terms of scouting and teams are so much more prepared as the stage is bigger and the stakes are higher at times. Therefore, it just comes down to players making plays. When you defend an action and you get delayed clock, it comes down to guys making plays and often times it is the guys with the ball in their hands.”

Amazingly enough Chiozza’s stat line from the first meeting with Arkansas is identical to his stat line with Missouri from the weekend… 17 points, 8 assists, and just one turnover. White wants more of the same.

“He just made shots,” White said of the first go around with the Razorbacks. “He hit a couple of late clock shots off the bounce that he created for himself. He played with a lot of confidence then, so hopefully he is playing with some confidence after the game with Missouri. You saw a similar type game in terms of how he was playing then and against Arkansas and how he played the other night.

“We certainly need our point guard play to be as good as it has been and have it carry over from Missouri in this tournament.”

One complaint from many that watch the team is what seems to be an inordinate amount of there-point shots taken by this Gator squad. White said it is just the nature of the makeup of his team.

“I think our shot selection is way better than it was a few months ago,” White said which is true that they are getting open looks. “Our turnovers are down. We had that midseason stretch where we turned it over a little too much. I think the last two games our offensive rhythm is as good as it’s been all year… against Kentucky and Missouri.”

Florida attempted 21 three-pointers in the first half alone against Missouri and only made six. This is why a lot of folks are wondering if there could be another plan.

“You look at the stat sheet and you say ‘boy that is a lot of three’s attempted’, but that’s kind of who we are,” White said. “We run a lot of spread pick and roll, we start a four-man (Dorian Finney-Smith) whose biggest strength is facing up and shooting jump shots. We’re playing four guys that play behind the arc facing the basket. It’s just not our strength to put our head down and go create for ourselves.”

The offense has improved since the start of SEC play. They have higher percentages in every category on offense since the start of the conference schedule.  

“We are a different type team but have different strengths,” White said. “We’re a willing and pretty good passing team who has gotten better with team passing over the course of the season. We do a good job, our guys space the floor, and often we find ourselves open from three. If you look at the strength, even though it’s not as big a strength as we hope it is in the future for some of these guys in terms of the three point percentage, but six or seven of our guys are perimeter, face-up, catch-and-shoot guys first.

“Another factor is that teams have done a lot of collapsing on Dorian Finney-Smith when he puts his head down and John Egbunu when he catches it deep. We need to kick those things back out and need to shoot with confidence.”

Finally the free-throw enigma is something that has hounded this team in a lot of losses. White maintains that in practice they shoot a lot of free throws and make a lot of them in what he calls pressure situations. That bears out in some games and others… not so much.

“It’s unbelievable, I can’t explain it,” he said about his team shooting 25-33 (75.8%) from the charity stripe against Missouri. “It is an odd deal. Go back to Arkansas, it won us the game. We went 30-36 and if we don’t do that against the Hogs they come in here and steal another one. We’ve shown signs of being a very good free throw shooting team and obviously it’s lost us a few as well. We’ll take the first scenario for the SEC Tournament… we could.”

It all goes back to one game at a time and dealing with the scenario that is right in front of them with this team. Arkansas is the only team his players need to think about.

“We’re not even looking at it as a whole,” White said of the tournament. “It’s not about what’s after Arkansas in any way or playing Arkansas a little bit differently because of the tournament format. We may do some things differently based on what we didn’t do very well against Arkansas in the first go around.

“The preparation is based on this being a one game event for us.

“The only thing I think that is a little different is you have a little more prep time. We will get into Arkansas today as opposed to two days out.  It gives you one more day to prepare for them and they have one more day to prepare for us. We could have gotten into it yesterday, but we decided to give our guys a mental break.”

The Gators and Razorbacks square off in the first game Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.

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