After a full slate of promising debuts for freshman-led NCAA DIvision I men’s basketball teams, the Florida Gators appear to be in search of a leader — and a win — of their own after an eye-opening 21-point defeat at No. 17 Florida State in the season opener Tuesday in Tallahassee.
Less than 72 hours later, the Gators will get a chance to quell any premature perception that coach Mike White’s fourth year at the helm will be a rebuilding year when Florida returns to the court against Charleston Southern at 7 p.m. in the home opener today.
“Most of our issues throughout the night were offensive. Not being able to score against a prolific defense, and some of it was our own doing. Horrific shot selection, which I’m in charge of,” White said Friday about the 81-60 loss at FSU. “It’s got to get better.”
In the eyes of senior Kevarrius Hayes, Tuesday’s defeat at the hands of the Seminoles appeared to open the eyes of those inside the locker room — although, frankly, words are meaningless until they’re verified on the court. For a team that struggled to score the basketball in the post and couldn’t create open shots for the guards, Tuesday’s resounding defeat may have humbled the team’s offensive prospects in a sense.
“It’s a wake-up call. We can’t rely on just one part of the game,” Hayes said. “We can’t just play when we are hitting shots. We have to play well at all times, so both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively.”
If anything, the loss reinforced the notion the Gators are in need of another vocal leader alongside Hayes. Although his first taste of collegiate action didn’t result in the desired outcome, point guard Andrew Nembhard showed poise and experience beyond his years Tuesday. The freshman from Aurora, Ontario, Canada, logged 12 points and four assists in a team-high 34 minutes of action.
“I wasn’t about to take him out of the game. He played with confidence, he played with poise. He had a couple turnovers I’m sure that we wish we could get back, but it was a really good debut for him,” White said. “It was another small positive for us.”
Sometimes the intangibles provide a clearer picture than a stat sheet, and White noticed Nembhard’s penchant for leadership combined with an advanced basketball I.Q. in the team’s first contest.
“He’s grabbing guys in the huddles as a freshman, which he shouldn’t need to do, but I’m going to continue challenging him to do,” White said. “So I was pleased with his performance.”
Against a Charleston Southern team that saw all five starters score in double figures in the team’s season-opening win, the Gators and White will continue looking for Nembhard to progress naturally as a vocal presence on the court and in the locker room. And if the transformation doesn’t happen overnight, White may be left with no choice than to coax it out of Nembhard for the sake of Florida’s season.
“I think it’s possible (Nembhard helps lead), and probably needed, unless some of our older guys step up to help Kevarrius in that regard,” White said. “At some point, I might come to a decision where we encourage that more and more as a staff. But I think you have to be really special as a freshman, because we’re throwing a lot of other things on these guys’ plates that make the curve for them difficult and demanding.
“I don’t think right now is the time to ask our freshmen to lead us.”
Who: Charleston Southern (1-0) vs. Florida (0-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Online: SEC Network+
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 0.0 ppg; 1.0 rpg
Jalen Hudson; G; 6-6; Sr.; 11.0 ppg; 2.0 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 12.0 ppg; 0.0 rpg
Keith Stone; F; 6;-8; Jr.; 6.0 ppg; 8.0 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 4.0 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Travis McConico; F; 6-6; Sr.; 17.0 ppg; 6.0 rpg.
Timmy Sellers; F; 6-8; Fr.; 10.0 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Duncan LeXander; F; 6-8; Fr.; 17.0 ppg; 8.0 rpg
Deontaye Buskey; G; 6-1; So.; 11.0 ppg; 4.0 rpg
Christian Keeling; G; 6-4; Jr.; 13.0; ppg; 3.0 rpg
NOTES: The Gators were the only power conference team in the nation to open their season on the road vs. a ranked opponent … Florida and Charleston Southern meet for the first time in 11 years, with all five prior contests between the two resulting in UF wins in Gainesville … Andrew Nembhard became the first UF player to start in his freshman debut since KeVaughn Allen and the Ontario native is the first point guard since Kasey Hill … Nembhard, Hill and Matt Walsh are the only Gators since 2000 to start, score in double figures and record at least 4 assists in their freshman debut and Nembhard is the only one to do so against a high-major opponent.
— Graham Hall