Gators look for improved transition defense vs. Wildcats

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Florida guard Scottie Lewis (23) is putting his wing span to good use while playing defense. The Gators will need improved defensive play to close the season strong. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]
Florida (17-9, 9-4) at No. 10 Kentucky (21-5, 11-2), 6 p.m. today, ESPN, 103.7-FM

Having won five of six games in February, the Gators men’s basketball team now hits the road for a critical contest in the SEC’s most hostile environment.
When the Gators tip-off at 6 p.m. today against No. 10-ranked Kentucky in Rupp Arena, marking the first of two contests against the Wildcats (21-5, 11-2 SEC) in a five-game span, coach Mike White is looking for Florida to make further strides when it comes to the team’s transition defense.
Despite outrebounding the Razorbacks by a double-digit margin, Florida (17-9, 9-4 SEC) allowed Arkansas to score 14 points in transition — one of a few blips in a game the Gators led for the final 36:42 before claiming a 73-59 victory Tuesday.
“Our transition defense has got to be much better than it’s been lately. It’s probably our biggest deficiency right now, along with defending without fouling, and that’s where (Kentucky is) so proficient. As good as anyone in the country at getting to the line, and as good as anyone in the country at converting at the line, so we’ve got to play with more discipline defensively,” White said. “We’re playing really hard, but we’ve got to clean it up.”
He added Florida has assigned roles in a sense regarding who should chase rebounds and who should get back in transition, saying the team opts for the latter based on the strength of the roster.
“We call it floor balance. We’ve got offensive rebounders and we’ve got floor balance guys, and we try not to have any gray area. Especially with the make-up of this team, and we’re not the fastest team, and it’s part of our problem at times in transition defense, and so we’re erring on the side of getting back,” White said. “Floor balance guys have to get back for us, and for the most part we’ve done that. We have to get even better with it, and our frontcourt guys have got to be — we’ve got to have more urgency from those guys to get back, and we’ll need that tomorrow, of course, to have any type of chance.”
That lack of urgency in transition can result in unnecessary fouls — even from the team’s more experienced playmakers.
Tuesday’s contest was no exception as graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. was whistled for a pair of fouls within the first 2:03 of play, forcing him to the bench and limiting the Orlando native to his fewest minutes since getting ejected Nov. 21 in Florida’s win against St. Joseph’s.
“We have to keep him on the floor. We’re not as good with him out. We need him,” White said of Blackshear. “We need him in a big way in Lexington. Somehow he has to avoid foul trouble.”
He would finish with four fouls, as would his partner in the low post, sophomore Keyontae Johnson. Meanwhile, reserve big man Jason Jitoboh picked up a trio of fouls — although it did come in what White said was a “fantastic” 15-minute stretch from the freshman center.
If the Gators continue fouling at a high rate today against the Wildcats, the developing yet promising Jitoboh may once again hear his number called – in front of 23,000 screaming Kentucky fans, no less.
“He’s just had a renewed focus and work ethic. I think probably in the month prior Omar (Payne) stuck out in that regard. I think Jason just, probably three or four weeks ago, just came in and — not sure it happened in one day, and he didn’t announce it — but it was almost as if he was putting off the vibe ‘I’m going to find a way to help this team’, you know, ‘I’m going to find a way for, I’m going to make coach play me a little bit’, and that’s what he’s done,” White said of Jitoboh. “Defensively, it’s night and day, and he still has a ways to go, of course, he’s a work in progress, he knows it. But he’s really worked lately.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;13.7 ppg;7.0 rpg

Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;13.2 ppg;7.6 rpg 

Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;11.9 ppg;5.5 apg

Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;10.8 ppg;2.6 rpg 

Scottie Lewis;G;6-5;185;Fr.;8.0 ppg;4.1 rpg

Kentucky

Nick Richards;F;6-11;247;Jr.;14.5 ppg;8.1 rpg

EJ Montgomery;F;6-10;228;So.;6.3 ppg;5.4 rpg

Ashton Hagans;G;6-3;198;So.;12.0 ppg;4.1 rpg

Tyrese Maxey;G;6-3;198;Fr.;13.9 ppg;4.2 rpg

Immanuel Quickley.;G;6-3;188;So.;15.2 ppg;4.1 rpg

Notes: Florida and Kentucky are set to meet twice over the final 5 games of the regular season. The teams have traded sweeps over the past 2 seasons, as the Gators took both meetings in 2017-18 before the Wildcats did so in 2018-19…UF has the SEC’s best field goal percentage (.463) and 3-point percentage (.382) during conference play…Florida’s sophomore trio has stepped up big in the month of February, combining for 44 points per game, led by Keyontae Johnson’s 16.0 average and followed closely by Andrew Nembhard (14.2) and Noah Locke (13.8). Locke is shooting .550 from 3-point range and making 3.7 3-pointers per game (22-for-40) in February.

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