Florida coach Mike White has tried everything to get his team to finish shots better inside.
“We have done more finishing drills, half court, full court,” White said. “We’ve got all the gadgets and the big dummies, you know, the big dummy defenders, and the (styrofoam) baseball bats.”
Simply put, the Gators haven’t converted enough point-blank, two-point baskets on nights when they aren’t sinking 3-point shots. Florida ranks 272nd in the nation in two-point field goal percentage, making below 50 percent (.471) of its shots inside the arc.
Making baskets inside as well as outside will be a priority for Florida when it hosts Alabama in a critical conference game for both teams today at the O’Connell Center.
“Some of it is a focus thing” White said. “I think some of it is a physicality thing. This team, you guys know it, we all know it, Alabama knows it, we’re not the most physical team that there is and when you hit us and when there’s a little bit of contact, we need to embrace it a little bit more.”
In its 72-60 loss at Georgia on Tuesday, UF made just 14 of its 37 two-point attempts. A missed dunk by junior center Kevarrius Hayes with Florida up 44-41 helped Georgia regain momentum and tie the score midway through the second half. Then, with Florida up 51-50 and 10 minutes remaining, the Gators missed 14 straight shot attempts.
“Some really poor decisions,” White said. “Four of five really horrendous shots that shouldn’t have been taken. But, again, when you’re driving it and not having success, and you’re posting it and not having success, and they’re running you off the line, bad possessions occur.”
Florida grad transfer guard Egor Koulechov said the Gators are embracing the challenge of finishing better inside.
“Part of it is focus,” Koulechov said. “Part of it is taking better shots. Sometimes we force it. Sometimes we’ll play maybe a little hero ball. It’s on us, at the end of the day. The coaches are putting us in good spots on the floor. We’re getting good shots. We just gotta capitalize.”
Florida begins a critical February stretch. The Gators will play three of their next four games at home before critical games later in the month at No. 18 Tennessee (Feb. 21) and at home against No. 11 Auburn (Feb. 27). Florida is 2-3 in its last five conference games and has lost two straight league games.
Koulechov said players have done a couple of meetings this season, but none this week following the Georgia loss.
“We’re not in panic mode at this point but at the same time we know how urgent it is to kind of start figuring things out,” Koulechov said.
Part of that is Florida players continuing to learn to embrace physicality and find different ways to score when 3-point shots aren’t falling.
“This is a big boy league and there’s a lot of contact in this league that’s not called,” White said. “We get away with it too, it’s the SEC, you’ve got to be able to finish through contact, you’ve got to be able to score in the post a little bit, we’ve got to be able to get a couple of offensive rebounds and putbacks.”
Marquee point guard matchup
The Florida-Alabama matchup will pit two of the top point guards in the SEC against one another. Call it experience against youth. Alabama freshman point guard Collin Sexton has taken the league by storm, ranking third in the league in scoring at 18.7 ppg. Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza, meanwhile, leads the SEC in assists (6.1 apg) and is second in steals (1.9 spg).
White tried to recruit the 6-foot-3 Sexton, a Mableton, Ga., native, to UF. But Sexton chose to sign with the Tide and their coach, Avery Johnson, instead.
“He’s one of the best athletes in the country,” White said. “He’s incredibly explosive, competitive. He’s got some toughness. It’s really hard to keep him out off the paint. He’s great at drawing fouls. He can create his own shot anytime he wants. He’s a really good on-ball defender. He’s very, very talented.”
Sexton and Chiozza won’t be guarding each other on every possession. At times, Alabama will slide 6-5 redshirt sophomore guard Dazon Ingram over to the point, and at times, Johnson will even use rangy, 6-8 freshman wing Herb Jones to defend point guards on the perimeter. But the Chiozza-Sexton matchup should provide an interesting subplot to the game.
“Two really good, quick guards,” White said. “I’m sure Chris is excited to go against Collin and Collin I’m sure is chomping at the bit to go against Chris who is having a great year. It ought to be a great battle at the point.”
No change in Egbunu status
White said Florida senior center John Egbunu remains day-to-day while still rehabbing from a torn ACL. The 6-11, 265-pound Egbunu has taken part in non-contact drills for close to three weeks but has yet to be cleared for contact.
“One day it will feel really good and a couple of days later he’ll have some swelling, and the next day feel OK, the knee he had surgery on, and the next day, the other knee may be a little bit sore,” White said. “Just a comfort level thing right now. Until he strings together a bunch of days that he feels good, (trainer) Duke (Werner) and I are not going to allow him to go full-go, competitive and bone-on-bone. We’re not going to just put John out there. Until he is 100 percent, he’s just not going to play.”
White said freshman center Isaiah Stokes’ conditioning “still isn’t where it needs to be.” Freshman forward Chase Johnson (concussion protocol) has strung together close to two good weeks of practices. But at this point, White isn’t sure whether to burn a possible redshirt for the 6-9, Ripley, W. Va., native. Johnson has appeared in just four games this season and could redshirt if he plays in less than 30 percent (nine games) of competition this season, per NCAA Division I rules.
“He’s kind of bouncing around and smiling and putting on dunk contests after practice,” White said. “He feels good, so we’ll continue to evaluate that and see if whether or not he can help his team. If he felt this way a month or two ago it would be a no brainer. Now, we’ve got some decisions to make here.”
Who: No. 23 Florida Gators (15-7, 6-3 SEC) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (14-8, 5-4 SEC)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: AM-850, 103.7-FM
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;11.3 ppg; 2.2 rpg
G;Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;12.7 ppg;6.3 apg
G;Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;14.5 ppg;7.2 rpg
F;Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;8.0 ppg;3.8 rpg
C;Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.3 ppg;5.2 rpg
ALABAMA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;John Petty;6-5;Fr.;11.5 ppg;2.3 rpg
G;Collin Sexton;6-3;Fr.;18.7 ppg;3.2 apg
G;Dazon Ingram;6-5;RSo.;10.9 ppg;6.2 rpg
F;Braxton Key;6-8;So.;5.5 ppg;5.2 rpg
F;Donta Hall;6-9;Jr.;10.8 ppg;6.8 rpg
Notes: Florida is 67-74 all-time against Alabama and 1-1 against the Tide under Mike White. Florida is 40-20 against the Tide all-time at home. …. Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.3) while ranking second in 3-pointers per game (9.6), free throw percentage (.756) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3-1). … The top three free throw shooters in the SEC are on UF’s roster. Grad transfer forward Egor Koulechov leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 90.9 percent, followed by KeVaughn Allen at 90.3 percent and Chris Chiozza at 89.4 percent. … Chiozza has only one turnover in each of UF’s last five games, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 37 to 5 during that span. … Koulechov has put together a string of eight straight games with at least seven or more rebounds. … Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson had a string of eight straight games in double figures snapped Tuesday at Georgia but is still averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game. … Alabama has won five of its last seven games but is coming off a 69-60 loss at home Wednesday against Missouri. … Freshman guard John Petty has made a team-high 60 3-pointers for Alabama, while junior center Donta Hall leads the Tide with 49 blocked shots. … The game will be a homecoming of sorts for Alabama assistant coach John Pelphrey, who was an assistant at Florida under Billy Donovan from 1996-2002 and from 2011-15.
— Kevin Brockway