Since the beginning of the season, Florida coach Mike White has considered his team’s bench a strength.
But with the Gators having lost two of their last three games with a critical matchup against LSU at home on Saturday, it’s caused some to wonder whether White is playing too many players, or the right players at the right time.
White addressed the state of his player rotation on Friday.
“It’s gonna be game to game,” White said. “If we start off tomorrow with the defensive energy that we had (against Tennessee), I study the season box score like you guys, I know what our deficiencies are offensively, and if we don’t have five or seven that have significantly separated themselves from the others offensively, then we have to sell out to what we need our identity to be, which it wasn’t the other day, which it’s gotta be tomorrow.
“In that case I’m willing to substitute five to seven to eight players that are gonna play as hard as they possibly can play just to give us a chance. If we play at pickup, hoop it up intensity tomorrow, we have no chance.”
Because Florida got off to a poor start defensively, White subbed in some offensively-challenged lineups to try to get stops. With the Gators trailing 27-20 in the first half, White subbed in a lineup that included Kevarrius Hayes at center, Justin Leon and DeVon Walker at forwards and Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen at guards. With that unit on the floor, Hayes and Hill both had turnovers during a Tennessee 7-3 run that extended the Vols’ lead to 34-23.
Senior forward Alex Murphy returned from a foot injury against Tennessee, and center Schuyler Rimmer is expected back from a back injury against LSU, which gives White more options off the bench. How he uses them will be interesting going forward.
“I feel good about Chris Chiozza coming out and playing really hard from the tip, he’s shown that consistently,” White said. “We need Dorian Finney-Smith to play with incredible intensity tomorrow and then I know what we’re gonna get from Kevarrius Hayes, he’s gonna make some mistakes as a freshman coming off the bench as all freshmen do, but he’s gonna play as hard as he possibly can play.
“As long as we’re an average offensive team, which we are right now, maybe that will change in a month, we need those guys. DeVon Walker, he’s gotta be ready to be thrown in the game because when he’s in the game he plays really, really hard, he’s one of our better defenders. Now if DeVon Walker gets it going offensively a little bit for us, he might be able to steal some other guys’ minutes. That’s where we are right now. I don’t necessarily like that, but that’s where we are.”
— In addition to being hard on the team, White was hard on himself in how he coached at Tennessee. White doesn’t regret calling a timeout 32 seconds into the game, but felt like he should have called more timeouts in the first half to try to stop the bleeding. It was the only timeout that White called in the half. ” I should have used more timeouts in the first half,” White said. “I’ll be the first one to admit that. As you go back and watch the film, I said … ‘Surely, we’re going to get this thing going defensively. Surely, we’re going to get into a defensive rhythm because that’s what we’ve done 97 percent of the season. That’s who we are.’ But when you go back and watch the film, maybe we needed more time. Maybe we needed more substitutions. Maybe we sure have thrown more of our reserves out there a little bit earlier, just to make a statement to some of the older guys.”
— White was asked if he would consider changing defenses throughout the game to adjust to LSU freshman phenom Ben Simmons if he gets off to a hot start. “That just hasn’t been us, this year,” White said. “We have played 99.5 percent, I haven’t looked at our numbers here the last couple of days, I’ve been focused on LSU. I bet we played five or seven possessions of zone and they weren’t very good, but our man defense, other than probably a game and a half, has been really good. And so, we’re going to do what we do. We’re probably going to throw different guys at Ben. We may change ball screen coverages, who knows? We may change baseline out of bounds coverages, as we’ve done in the past. We may change presses. But in the halfcourt, for the most part, that’s who we are, we’re a man-to-man defensive team.”
— Junior forward Justin Leon is off to a 4-for-7 start from 3-point range in SEC play. What’s interesting is that Leon is a throwback set-shooter whose feet barely leaves the floor when he shoots. It wasn’t always that way. Leon was a jump shooter in high school. But Leon, an exceptional leaper and perhaps the best dunker on the Gators, found that when he shot while he jumped he built up too much adrenaline and shot the ball too hard. “That’s probably why I just take my time and just shoot it,” Leon said. “So I guess you could say it just evolved, just playing the game .”