TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s been a long and sometimes painstaking process.
But heading into March, Florida basketball coach Mike White has transformed the Gators from a team in which defense was an afterthought to one that is capable of shutting down a team on any given night.
Florida is entering March ranked 21st in the nation in Kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings and is coming off one of its best defensive efforts of the season, limiting Alabama to 30-percent shooting from the floor and 20 percent from 3-point range in a 73-52 win over the Tide on Tuesday night.
The Gators have given up an average of 59.7 points over their last three games.
“He deserves a ton of credit,” an NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of White. “He took a bunch of guys who were selfish and he has them playing hard and playing together, on offense and on defense.”
Against Alabama, Florida set the tone early, holding the Tide to 18 points in the first half on 4-of-30 shooting.
“Defensively, we’re trying to figure out how we can be consistent, play every possession one at a time without losing focus, not taking a few steps back, back and forth,” Florida senior guard Egor Koulechov said. “Right now we just have to keep working at it, keep putting it together. If we play defense like that, you give yourself a good chance of winning every single game.”
White said one of the biggest factors in holding Alabama to 52 points was the ability to get back in transition and set its defense. Florida failed to do that in a 68-50 loss to Alabama on Feb. 3 in Gainesville.
The Gators also kept Alabama freshman phenom point guard Collin Sexton in check, limiting him to 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting.
“We did a better job, led by our guards, keeping him out of the paint and then walling him off in transition with the help of the closest teammate,” White said.
The Gators will try to maintain their high-level play on defense Saturday in their regular season finale at the O’Connell Center against Kentucky.
“We can’t be satisfied,” Koulechov said. “It’s got to be the standard. We’ve got to keep stringing it together.”
In improving to 19-11 and 10-7 in the SEC, Florida’s win at Alabama may have secured an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Gators have nine Quadrant 1 wins, third most nationally behind Kansas (11) and North Carolina (10). A Quadrant 1 win is defined as a win against Top 30 RPI opponent at home, a Top 50 RPI opponent on a neutral court and a Top 75 RPI opponent on the road. The nine Q1 wins are Gonzaga and Cincinnati on a neutral court, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Alabama on the road, and Auburn and Arkansas at home.
With five road wins and eight road/neutral court wins before the SEC Tournament, the Gators certainly have proven they can win anywhere, even against high-level competition. Those are the kind of wins the NCAA Tournament selection committee values when determining at-large berths.
Vying for the double bye
Florida is currently tied with Arkansas for third in the SEC at 10-7, with Kentucky a half game back at 9-7. The Gators can secure the number three overall seed in the SEC Tournament and a double-bye with a win Saturday against the Wildcats.
If Florida loses, the Gators can still get a double bye as the No. 4 seed if Arkansas loses on Saturday at Missouri. Florida owns head-to-head tiebreakers against Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi State. Missouri and Mississippi State are both 9-8 and can improve to 10-8 in the league with wins Saturday.
Freshman forward Dontay Bassett will be checked by trainers Thursday. He took a blow to the face in the first half against Alabama and sat out the second half.
Who: No. 23 Kentucky vs. Florida
When: 12 p.m. Saturday
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850