Georgia (12-9, 2-6) vs. Florida (13-8, 5-3), O’Connell Center, 7 p.m. today, ESPNU
Although the Gators will have the support of the Florida faithful when they take the court tonight for a match-up against Georgia, the Bulldogs have freshman phenom Anthony Edwards.
The program’s highest-rated recruit in the past two decades, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Edwards arrives in Gainesville averaging nearly 20 points a game in what has been an all-around dominant college basketball debut for the Atlanta native.
While Georgia (12-9, 2-6 SEC) has trended downward after starting the season with nine wins in 12 tries, Edwards’ stock is only rising; while the combine is several months away, Edwards is projected by NBA draft analysts to be a top-five pick in June barring something unforeseen.
Meaning the Gators, who snapped a three-game losing streak Saturday with a 61-55 point win at Vanderbilt, will have their hands full on the defensive end.
“Oh, he’s going to take his. He’s fantastic. What a talent. One of the best talents that I’ve ever witnessed in this league at his age. He’s tremendous,” Florida coach Mike White said of Edwards. “And Tom (Crean) does a good job of putting him in space and letting him do what he does. One of the best cutting teams that we’ve scouted here.”
Fortunately for Florida, Saturday’s showing was a bit of a bounce-back defensively after a noticeable decline in SEC play. After leading for nearly the final 37 minutes of play, White said the Gators (13-8, 5-3) turned in an improved defensive performance after entering the contest ranked outside the top-100 in defensive efficiency.
“I thought we were pretty good, really, for 40 (minutes). We had less defensive clips than we’ve seen in awhile in the film room with these guys. I really liked the overall effort. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best defensive game that we’ve played in awhile,” White said. “Unfortunately, shots didn’t go quite as efficiently on the offensive end, but that’s what you’re striving for, of course, to try to put it all together. I liked the way we responded, that this group went to Nashville and responded the way we did.”
The lukewarm field-goal shooting as a collective seemed to overshadow another strong performance from sophomore Keyontae Johnson. The 6-foot-5 Johnson has become a do-everything player for the Gators this season.
Johnson’s defensive aptitude was evident during his freshman campaign, and it’s an area in which he continues to improve, but his improvement on the offensive end has been just as noticeable as of late. He’s averaging 14.1 points per game over Florida’s last 10 games — a span that’s also seen him connect on 44 percent of his three-point attempts.
Johnson said the key to his improved touch from the field was relatively straightforward: in the off-season, he just kept shooting.
“I just did a lot of reps with the coaches. Like, in summer A, I had to make a thousand shots before every day was done, so I just did that,” Johnson said prior to Tuesday’s practice session. “That was my challenge with Coach White, so I feel like that’s helped me carry over to the season.”
It seemingly culminated Saturday for Johnson in what White deemed was “arguably his best game as a Gator.” While that may be true, Johnson’s scoring isn’t news to teammate Noah Locke, who first met his future teammate during a middle school basketball camp.
“Seventh grade, we went to this camp together. We ended up connecting through that, I ended up meeting his mom. We just stuck together through AAU and ended up going to the same college together,” Locke said. “We all know he can shoot the ball. I’ve known him for a long time. When he was younger, he was a shooter. That’s what he was, he was a good shooter. So, I always knew he could shoot the ball, and it kind of surprises me when he doesn’t shoot.”
If the team’s most recent win is any indication, the Gators may need Johnson to continue firing away — while maintaining his defensive intensity — through February and into March.
“When he’s playing really hard, he’s terrific, he’s as good as anybody on our team. He was really locked in,” White said of Johnson. “I don’t think he goes out there and says, ‘This is my time to score.’ He shouldn’t. None of us should be doing that. I thought his teammates got him open looks, he made shots. He’s continuing to progress offensively. He got out in transition a little bit. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. Our best driver. But the biggest difference — or, the biggest positive, I should say — is he just defended at a really high level, communicated at a high level. From our defensive accountability chart that we do after games, it’s as good as he’s been all year.”
Notes: Florida and Georgia meet for the first of 2 games this season, with both teams coming off a win last weekend as Florida won at Vanderbilt and Georgia topped Texas A&M in Athens. The visitors won both contests in last season’s UF-UGA matchups…Florida enters the game in a 3-way tie for 4th place in the SEC and will be halfway through its conference schedule after Wednesday’s game. During conference play, the Gators are shooting .460 from the field and .380 from 3-point range, both #1 in the league rankings…In all games, sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard leads the SEC in A/TO ratio (2.2) and ranks 2nd in assists per game (6.0).