Gators continue surprising turnaround by topping Commodores
Anyone who says blondes have more fun was not watching Scottie Lewis play basketball three weeks ago.
The last time Lewis and his blond dye job were spotted on a court, he scored two points as sputtering Kentucky beat Florida by 18 points. It was pretty much a repeat of the previous game, a 15-point loss to Alabama.
Then Lewis, arguably the most talented player on the team, was sidelined four games due to "health and safety precautions." Nobody officially said Lewis had COVID-19, but you didn't need to be Dr. Dick Vitale to see Florida's season was unraveling fast.
Fast forward to Wednesday night at Exactech Arena. After the Gators beat Vanderbilt 78-71, Mike White's biggest concern was that things have gone too smoothly for his team.
"We've got to handle success better than we did after this past week," the Florida coach said.
Trouble handling success?
Whoever thought that'd be a problem for this team after the Kentucky debacle on January 9th?
Keyontae Johnson's near-death experience was impossible to overcome, either emotionally or from a basketball standpoint.
Lewis seemed lost. There was a bench full of unproven players. White would have to re-tool the offense on the fly.
All that, and the Gators have now won three consecutive games. Players like Colin Castleton and Omar Payne are growing up fast.
Tre Mann is living up the five-star hoopla he brought to town last year. Tyree Appleby and Noah Locke are pumping in 3-pointers.
The turnaround is a combination of maturation, opportunity, luck and coaching. Or maybe White is secretly spiking opponents’ Gatorade with NyQuil before each game.
Beats me. All I know is things are humming so nicely that Lewis wasn't sure he wanted to get back on the court Wednesday night.
"I was scared to come back because of how good they were playing," he said. "I wanted to make sure with the addition of me, we were actually adding and not subtracting."
He needn't worry. Lewis scored four consecutive baskets to propel Florida to a comfortable first-half lead.
It grew to a too-comfortable 22 points in the second half. Then the Gators went into Zombie mode and almost let the Commodores steal a win.
Nobody was more bothered by the meltdown than Lewis. He considers himself the team's defensive stopper, and nobody stopped Scotty Pippen Jr.
"That's my job. The coaches want me to lead," Lewis said. "I'm supposed to take over."
Pippen had a career-high 32 points and looked like a smaller version of his Hall-of-Fame father. But the fact Lewis was chasing him around the court was a testament to Lewis' talent.
"I was shocked he was able to be that much of a factor," White said. "There was no way I anticipated him playing 20 minutes."
He anticipated Lewis would play two minutes. The sophomore guard ended up playing 28.
That's not bad for someone who'd been quarantined for more than two weeks. Lewis didn't even practice until Tuesday, though he watched the video of every practice.
The solitude gave him plenty of time to think, and not just about basketball. Life has plenty of distractions when you're a 20-year-old with an NBA future.
His blond hair wasn't a distraction, but Lewis decided it was time to go back to his natural color.
"I don't know, it was just a mental thing," he said. "Just going back to my natural self and locking in a lot of things. I don't want to be anything other than a player for the University of Florida."
That's fine by Florida, which knows this mini-renaissance is fragile. Next up is No. 11 West Virginia, on the road Saturday afternoon. Nobody will confuse the Mountaineers for Vandy.
But whatever happens, Florida's progress can't be rinsed away in one game. By any color, the season is looking a lot more fun than it did not too long ago.
David Whitley is the Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.