Tuesday marks the first opportunity for the Florida faithful to witness the latest iteration of the UF men’s basketball team, as the Gators will host Lynn at 7 p.m. in the Exactech Arena.
But the team has already picked up a win on the hardwood, in a sense.
Florida emerged with a 76-58 win over the University of South Florida in a closed-door scrimmage held Saturday in Gainesville, giving UF coach Mike White and the team a chance to work out the kinks prior to stepping under the bright lights.
While the team’s shooting was “the biggest surprise” of Saturday, White also pointed out several aspects in need of improvement for a team set to open the season with a top-10 designation.
“We really shot the ball well. Your hope would be your guys will understand we can’t expect to shoot the ball that well. Lots of stuff to clean up, both offensively and defensively. A lot of things we still need to potentially learn about ourselves,” White said. “Decent defensively, probably for this early. Most importantly, culture was terrific. Was really pleased for the pulling for one another, and the healthy aura on the bench.”
Yet White added the ensuing practice wasn’t nearly as promising.
“We had a horrendous practice Tuesday and were off yesterday, so we need to get back at it (Thursday),” he said. “Again, looking back on the scrimmage, some positives, but a ways to go.”
Gators have a long road ahead defensively
While White made sure to note that the team’s defense matched realistic expectations in the early going, it’s yet to reach the level of acceptability in the fifth-year UF coach’s eyes. Simply put, the team has a long road ahead to reach White’s criteria.
However, it’s likely not all for naught, as those high expectations aren’t based on an ideal, but rather on his assessment of the team’s potential.
“I think with the group that we have, with the level of experience, with the lack of experience of having to fight through crazy fatigue, through three games in a week,” White said, “defensively, and on the glass, we can be really good at times.”
Getting freshmen to maintain consistent intensity on the defensive end is hardly a seamless transition from the high school level — even for highly touted two-way player Scottie Lewis. Regarded as one of the top defensive prospects in the 2019 class due to his combination of length, athleticism and intelligence, Lewis has displayed glimpses through preseason camp of his promise on the defensive end. But like most freshmen, Lewis still has much to learn, too.
“He plays really hard. It’s just sometimes just knowing what place to be in. He’s really good with on-ball defense, he’s really active with his hands, but sometimes he has trouble knowing what place to be,” Locke said of Lewis. “Sometimes you can play really hard and not be in the right place and still mess up. So it’s like, just knowing the place where you’ve got to be in certain scenarios, he can definitely get better than that, but defensively he’s definitely ahead of the curve.”
Sophomores stepping up
After the way last season shaped up for the Gators, it’s no secret that much is expected out of Florida’s sophomore class. Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are each poised to play a considerable role for the Gators this season after helping lead UF down the stretch as freshmen, and that greater level of responsibility has begun to take shape inside UF’s basketball facility.
“Andrew really benefited from all the basketball with Team Canada. He’s been really, really good. He and (Kerry Blackshear) have really stood out from a production standpoint in practice,” White said. “They’ve got to lead and not only produce. Both of them have been terrific from an offensive and defensive standpoint, they’re getting stops, their team’s winning. Seems like those two guys are winning most competitions. We’ve got to get more and more leadership from those guys as well. Keyontae and Noah, the other sophomores you asked about, they’ve been good. They’ve both improved. They got to continue to get better.”
And they’re embracing the challenge
So far, White’s challenge has been met head-on by both Johnson and Locke. With Johnson poised to hold down the starting power forward spot this season, the Gators have looked to him to become more assertive from a vocal standpoint, considering the freshmen will at times look toward the sophomores for direction this season.
“I try to be more vocal as a teammate and just lead the younger freshmen and just tell them what they’ll expect and what’s important in college basketball,” Johnson said. “Everyone gets on each other but no one’s taking it hard, just move on to the next play and do what we got to do.”
As for Locke, who may see his minutes trimmed with the addition of highly touted freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, he spent the offseason rounding out his offensive repertoire.
“I worked on a lot of ball-handling stuff, I worked on finishing at the rim a lot. I mean, I know I can shoot the ball really well, so, of course I still worked on that, but I was really focusing on ball-handling and finishing at the rim, and also my passing, too, just different types of passes,” Locke said. “I feel like I’ve gotten better at all that stuff.”