Go small. Or go bigger.
That’s the dilemma Florida coach Mike White has faced through the first 10 games of the 2017-18 season.
White will continue to mix and match different lineup combinations Wednesday night when Florida returns home to face James Madison.
The Gators have settled on a starting lineup of late that includes four guards — Egor Koulechov, Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza — and Keith Stone at center. The Gators are 3-2 with that particular four-guard starting lineup, with wins over Stanford, No. 12 Gonzaga and No. 20 Cincinnati and losses to Duke and Clemson.
“We’re harder to guard there,” White said. “I think you could make an argument you’re starting more of a veteran lineup. Egor’s actually done a pretty good job defending on the interior, as well as anyone else on our team. And he’s actually been hard to block out, as well. He doesn’t give you a lot of size in there, but he’s playing really hard, so I don’t think there’s a big drop-off there.”
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Koulechov is averaging a team-high 7.1 rebounds per game.
“I’ll do whatever the team needs to win,” Koulechov said. “If it’s sometimes going small and that’s the best way for us in that game, I’ll do my best in any aspect. The coaching staff is putting us in a great position to win games. I’m not questioning it.”
But during UF’s 71-69 loss to Clemson last Saturday at the Orange Bowl Classic, Stone picked up two quick fouls and played just three minutes in the first half. The Gators turned to junior center Kevarrius Hayes, who was unable to pick up the slack with just 2 points and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes. Florida has lacked inside production throughout the season, which has put more pressure on perimeter players to hit shots and drive to the basket.
The size-challenged Gators have lacked depth up front, with 6-11 senior center John Egbunu and 6-8 freshman forward/center Isaiah Stokes still recovering from ACL surgeries. In addition, freshman 6-9 forward Chase Johnson will miss his fifth straight game while dealing with an undisclosed illness. Sophomore 6-11 center Gorjok Gak is limited to 10-20 minutes per game due to knee issues, while 6-9, 240-pound center Dontay Bassett hasn’t played since Dec. 4 against Florida State.
That has forced White to juggle different lineup combinations, sometimes going with four guards and other times going with three guards, a forward and a center. As a result, the Gators have been vulnerable at times on the boards and defending the paint.
“I wish it were a little more simple and obviously we’re not always making the right call,” White said. “Sometimes you’re juggling the matchups and size and whether you’re big, whether you’re small, you’re making substitutions based on fatigue, trying to keep guys fresh. Just sometimes you’re getting a guy because he looks exhausted and he just jogged back. Sometimes, I’m getting Chris Chiozza because I know down the stretch I want to play him down the stretch and I don’t want to play him 39 minutes if I can. But sometimes it’s he’s not playing great and this guy is giving us a little something … you’re just basing it on personnel as much as anything.”
Koulechov said he’s prepared to bang inside for as long as needed and embraces physical play.
“I played a lot of (power forward) when I came from Rice,” Koulechov said. “This is obviously a different level, high-majors, but at the same time, I’m not going to back down and give my best.”
Who: Florida Gators (6-4) vs. James Madison Dukes (4-8)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center/Exactech Arena, Gainesville
TV: SEC Network
Radio: AM-850, 103.7-FM
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G;KeVaughn Allen;6-2;So.;11.8 ppg; 2.8 rpg
G;Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;12.0 ppg;5.8 apg
G;Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;15.3 ppg;7.1 rpg
G;Jalen Hudson;6-6; RJr.;19.5 ppg;4.2 rpg
C;Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;5.6 ppg;2.8 rpg
JAMES MADISON PROBABLE STARTERS
G;Stuckey Mosley; 6-3;Jr.;20.7 ppg;4.2 rpg
G;Joey McLean;6-0;Sr.;13.3 ppg;2.8 apg
G;Darius Banks; 6-5;Fr.;9.0 ppg;2.3 rpg
F;Ramone Snowden;6-6;Sr.;6.1 ppg;4.3 rpg
F;DeVelle Phillips;6-9;Jr.;8.9 ppg;8.3 rpg
Notes: Florida and James Madison are meeting for the first time since the first round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament, a game the Gators won 64-62. Florida is 2-1 all-time against the Dukes. … The Gators lead the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.5), while ranking second in the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage (39.9 pct) and third in scoring offense (85.7 ppg). … Point guard Chris Chiozza (5.8 apg) ranks eighth on UF’s all-time career assist list at 421. Chiozza is two assists shy of passing Greg Williams for 7th in UF’s all-time assist list. … Florida senior forward Egor Koulechov has made 20 straight free throw attempts and leads the SEC in free throw percentage (.967). … Florida’s non-conference schedule is rated as the second toughest in the country, per Kenpom.com, behind only Wisconsin. … James Madison is shooting 34.6 percent from 3-point range on the season. … Junior guard Stuckey Mosley leads the Dukes in 3-point percentage, shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. … Junior forward DeVelle Phillips leads JMU in blocked shots with 21.
— Kevin Brockway
”Florida’s non-conference schedule is rated as the second toughest in the country…”
So having a 6-4 record (thus far) without a true big man, (sorry Hayes), admittedly, it isn’t an easy accomplishment. But still, like football, 7-3 looks so much better than 6-4. ”Come on Gators, get up and go!”
Being ranked is not that important at the moment. Filling the vacuum in the post will be critical in early league play.