Ten days have passed since Florida dropped to 5-4 after a 63-59 loss to Michigan State — giving coach Mike White and the Gators plenty of time to process the circumstances surrounding the defeat.
When the UF men’s basketball team returns to the court at 8 p.m. Tuesday to face Mercer in Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center, White is hoping the lessons learned in the interim will be put into practice come tip-off.
“Our guys have (been) pretty good at taking advantage of this window. They’ve handled their business,” White said. “We’ve gone long and hard. We’ve had some very, very taxing practices and our guys have responded pretty well. We’ve gotten a little bit better. Hopefully it carries over against the Bears.”
It’s no secret the Gators have struggled at times on the offensive end, as all four losses this season have been marked by considerable scoring droughts. After jumping out to a 5-0 lead against the Spartans, the Gators made just one field goal over the ensuing 10:46 of action.
The dysfunction on offense has led to some unexpected changes in the early going.
As seniors KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson continue to struggle, too, White has tinkered with the starting line-up, thrusting freshman Noah Locke in for Hudson after just four games and never looking back.
Locke has responded well, averaging 8.9 points during his five starts — although the sharpshooter added just a lone basket in 20 minutes against Michigan State. After the dust had settled, however, Locke and the Gators were harping on the necessity of playing wisely — especially if the 10-day reprieve didn’t amend the struggles on the offensive end.
“I feel like, as a team, we could have played much more smart towards the end of the game. There was a couple loose balls we should have got,” Locke said. “Those little things, if we had got those little things, I feel like we would have won the game.”
It’s a sentiment White expressed in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Spartans, saying Florida didn’t deserve to win after failing to dive for a decisive loose ball down the stretch. Practice prior to the match-up with the Bears (4-6) has been fine-tuned as a result of Florida’s inaction, said Locke.
“Every day in practice now we do loose-ball drills, where it’s like we throw it off the backboard or we roll on the ground and we go, like, go get it just with two hands,” Locke said. “Not just dribbling out of it. Just securing it. We do that every day.”
With just three games until the Gators open SEC play on Jan. 5 against South Carolina, White may not be done tinkering with the starting five.
“I think every year you reevaluate yourselves, really in every facet. After a lot of practices, a lot of games — especially when you have a 10-day window — we’ve added some wrinkles. I’m sure Mercer has, too,” White said. “You find windows where you can practice for consecutive days without scouting your next opponent. Who knows? This won’t be the only time all year with a window where we evaluate it.”
Who: Mercer (4-6) vs. Florida (5-4)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keith Stone; F; 6-8; 6.9 ppg; 5.1 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; 7.2 ppg; 6.2 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; 7.9 ppg; 6.1 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; 10.3 ppg; 2.4 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; 7.6 ppg; 1.6 rpg
Cory Kilby; F; 6-7; 7.6 ppg; 4.7 rpg
Djordje Dimitrijevic; G; 6-2; 12.2 ppg; 3.1 rpg
Jaylen Stowe; G; 6-4; 11.6 ppg; 5.3 rpg
Ross Cummings; G; 6-3; 13.5 ppg; 2.4 rpg
Ethan Stair; G; 6-4; 10.1 ppg; 6.1 rpg
NOTES: Just when UF gets redshirt freshman Chase Johnson cleared from concussion protocal, it has to be concerned with two more injuries. “Dontay Bassett hyperextended his knee and he’s been out,” coach Mike White said Monday. “He’s not competed and may be cleared by today, and then Deaundrae Ballard had a concussion, and he’s been out. He’s questionable for today and tomorrow as well. Gorjok Gak’s status quo, just rehabbing (from offseason knee surgery) every day.” The Gators play Mercer in Gainesville for the first time since 1979. … Florida took the lone meeting between the teams since then, topping the Bears in Jacksonville two seasons ago while Exactech Arena was under renovation. … UF has won the game following a loss all three prior instances this season. … The Gators rank 2nd in the SEC in scoring defense (61.8) and turnover margin (+5.2) and 3rd in steals (9.2). Freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard is among the SEC leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (2nd, 3.9) and assists per game (4th, 6.1), while KeVaughn Allen’s two steals per game are tied for 2nd in the SEC. Florida is ranked 7th in KenPom defensive efficiency ratings. … Since giving up 81 points in the season opener, the Gators haven’t allowed an opponent to reach 70 points and have held two foes under 50. … UF has held its last five major-conference opponents at least 19 points below their scoring average entering the game, including holding WVU more than 30 points below its average in the Jimmy V Classic win.
— Graham Hall