Okay, so Thomas Wolfe had it all wrong. You can go home again even if home bears only a slight resemblance to the place you left back in March. The old place was a modified version of a dump but considering its inadequacies it had a say in Florida basketball making the journey from semi-obscurity to prominence. But once the Gators elbowed their way into confines reserved for the blue bloods it was obvious a new place was needed. The new place is what is now called Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. It is a phoenix that has risen from the ashes of the old dump. Gone is all that cheap plastic that made the place look like it was built from a box kit way back when. The seats are padded and chair back. The aisles are spacious. There is a scoreboard high and in the middle and gigantic video boards in each corner up above the nose bleed seats. There are even club seats for the well-heeled donors.
People will still call it the O-Dome but the old O-Dome never looked like this place. This place looks like an arena fitting a really good basketball team, the kind of place a coach like Mike White will happily invite recruits. And if the Gators continue to play the way they did in their first home game since Kentucky dispatched them way back on March 1, the new arena might take on some of the intimidating qualities of the old dump.
What made Wednesday night’s first home game of the 2016-17 season so special was the way the Gators shot the basketball. To say they were hot would be like calling Hell a resort. Smoking? Yeah, the Gators were smoking. White hot? That might be even closer.
Florida shot 59.6 from the field and hit 16-31 shots from the 3-point line (51.6%) for a blowout 94-71 win over Arkansas-Little Rock that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. The Gators played like their hair was on fire the first 30 minutes then they got bored. In the last 10 minutes they slacked off on defense, weren’t nearly as careful with the basketball and took a few shots way too early in the shot clock, shots they probably will regret when White and his staff grade the film.
But it was a win and a big one at that against a pretty good basketball team. Little Rock went 30-5 last year and knocked off Purdue in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Some of the better players graduated, but the core left behind is good enough that it isn’t a stretch to think the Spartans will repeat as champs of the Sun Belt Conference.
It’s also not a stretch to think that the Gators are going to be a pretty good basketball team, especially if they can shoot anything close to what they shot Wednesday night.
“It was all about focus and when the ball was tipped it was all about making shots,” Florida coach Mike White said after the Gators played their first home game after 11 roadies to start the season, 17 overall dating back to last year.
This was the kind of game White envisioned for the Gators dating back to last season when he took over the program after Billy Donovan left to coach the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder. The Gators moved the basketball, made the right pass at the right time, and nobody was standing around. Because they moved their feet and found gaps in the Little Rock zone, there was no shortage of open shots to be had.
White called this the best 40 minutes of offense the Gators have played since he arrived from Louisiana Tech but he thought there were some slack moments defensively. They key moving forward will be to combine the offensive efficiency with the same kind of defensive intensity that has been the Gators’ trademark the first 11 games.
“Can we get that 40 minutes offensively and then play as well as we have in five or six games defensively for 40?” White asked. “In our three losses we defended really well in the first 20 so that’s what we’re searching for. That’s the challenge to our guys and they understand that. They know that we weren’t quite as crisp, but in our guys defense, that’s their first experience seeing the ball go through the hoop that many times so now you’ve got to get to the point where hopefully we see that more often.”
The shots fell early and often in the first half. Kasey Hill got the 3-point barrage started when he hit his first attempt with 17:40 left in the half. Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen then started feeling it. It was his three straight 3-pointers that not only stretched the lead to 18-7 but got the Gators feeling like everything they threw up was going to go in the hole. Allen finished the night with 19 points, hitting 7-10 shots overall and 5-7 from the 3-point line to go with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. He didn’t seem the least bit surprised that he got off to such a hot start.
“I think every time I shoot it’s going to go in,” Allen said while downplaying any incentive he might have felt to play well against a team from his home town. “My teammates did a good job of finding me.”
Allen’s hot hand was contagious. After his three straight 3-balls, Devin Robinson joined in, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half. And, it seemed whenever Allen or Robinson found a crease in the defense, Hill delivered the perfect pass.
“We were passing the ball, sharing the ball and using each other,” Hill explained after recording his first career double-double – 11 points and 11 assists. Nine of the assists came in the first half.
The Gators led 56-27 at the half and that, Hill said, had everything to do with the entire team showing up to the arena focused on playing well and getting a win.
“We were just focused,” Hill said, adding that this was a point of emphasis by White and his staff leading up to the game. “Everybody was just locked in and focused on what we had to do.”
Robinson, who finished the game with a team-high 21 points on 7-10 shooting overall (4-5 from the 3-points line) to go with 7 rebounds and 2 assists, was energized by the crowd of 10,665 that filled the arena. There was definitely a feel of electricity in the air but there was a certain strange feeling prior to the game. For one thing, the Gators came to the arena after sleeping Tuesday night in their own beds for a change.
“It was actually weird not being in a hotel,” Robinson said. “It was kind of weird waking up in my bed and having to come play the game. It’s cool. I’ve got to get used to it.”
It only took a few shots going down for the weirdness to go away, replaced instead by the energy of the crowd.
“The crowd was going crazy,” Robinson said. “It was intense and we were focused on just doing our jobs and the crowd definitely helped us to come out with a good vibe and to do our thing.”
Joining Robinson, Allen and Hill in double figures were Kevarrius Hayes and Canyon Barry. Hayes started at center a second straight game for John Egbunu, whose hamstring issues had him in street clothes and on crutches. Hayes hit all five of his shots and finished with 12 points to go with a game-high 8 rebounds. Barry came off the bench to score 15, hitting 3-7 from the 3-point line.
The Gators are off for Christmas break but they will reconvene immediately after the holiday to get ready for their first SEC game, a road trip to Arkansas on December 29. After that it will be consecutive home SEC games against Ole Miss (January 3) and Tennessee (January 7).