With leadership weight lifted, Finney-Smith playing better

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Florida senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith is in the midst of his most consistent stretch of the season.

And perhaps, not by coincidence, it came shortly after a meeting with Florida coach Mike White.

White had expected Finney-Smith, a fifth-year senior, to take on a vocal leadership role this season. But White found that the responsibility of vocal leadership was out of Finney-Smith’s comfort zone. So the first-year UF coach told Finney-Smith to just focus on himself.

“It kind of like, took a weight off my back,” Finney-Smith said. “I kind of was getting a little deflated when guys missed their assignments. It affects me, too. So he was just trying to tell me to focus on myself.”

Finney-Smith has posted three double-doubles over his last four games, after getting one double-double in the first 12 games of the season. During his recent four-game stretch, Finney-Smith is averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds, while shooting 50 percent (9-18) from 3-point range.

“Dorian’s been a great leader for us, but for me to put on Dorian that his number one focus should be leadership, I’m not sure that was in our best interest as a team or his best interest because we’ve got to have Dorian play really well,” White said. “Some of these other guys need to worry about themselves and take care of themselves and not have Dorian babysit them so Dorian can worry about Dorian some.

“It’s funny. Now he’s playing really well, and he’s naturally thinking about probably leading at a higher rate as well.”

Finney-Smith descibed himself as a “laid-back dude” and said he took White’s words in the recent meeting to heart.

“I ain’t really too talkative,” Finney-Smith said. “But when Coach told me that I had to go back and look at myself in the mirror and accept it.

“Yeah it’s easier to play. Sometimes I’m still on the court and I still be out there probably talking the most but it ain’t, I ain’t got this image of how I want to be or nothing. I can just be myself.”

Other notes:

— Say this for White. Unlike his predecessor, future Hall of Fame coach Billy Donovan, White isn’t shy about talking about the NCAA Tournament. Even in mid-January. “Florida, we have a long proud history of tradition here,” White said. “This program, every year should strive to go to the NCAA Tournament, every year. So absolutely, that’s something that we should like to do. We’re not on the cusp of doing it right now. If we’re fortunate enough to get a few more wins and continue to improve, then it’ll be something that we start thinking about more.” White said he often checks RPI and BPI numbers after games and checks scores around the country. Donovan operated in more of a vacuum, focusing solely on the next opponent. As for the numbers, Florida is ranked 18th in the latest NCAA.com RPI, based on a strength of schedule that CBSSports.com ranks fifth in the country. But the Gators may need to win a few more signature games to gain an at-large berth. Florida is 1-5 against the RPI Top 50, with the lone win coming on a neutral floor against Saint Joseph’s. The Gators are 3-6 against the RPI Top 100. “It starts with our administration and (associate athletic director) Mike Hill, who put together a really good schedule for us,” White said. “We’ve had opportunities. Some we’ve taken advantage of; some we haven’t. We have plenty of more opportunities, in front of us.” CBSSports.com analyst Jerry Palm has Florida as a nine-seed in his latest mock NCAA Tournament projection.

— The Gators are showing signs of life from the 3-point line. While Florida still ranks last in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage (30.4), the Gators have shot a better clip in conference games (32.1 percent, 36-112) and have averaged 7.1 3-pointers game in SEC play. White said he was optimistic the Gators could be a good 3-point shooting team during the preseason, but didn’t take into account the number of first-year players on the team that had to get accustomed to shooting from long distance in game action in the Division I level, such as freshman guard KeVaughn Allen. “There’s a transition that goes with this,” White said. “It seems, if you look at season’s box scores across the country, sophomores shoot it better than freshmen and juniors shoot it better than sophomores. There’s just a progression there. To think that we’d just come out and be a great shooting team this year — when you’re relying on freshmen and unproven sophomores to make a bunch of shots for you — was probably not the right thing to think. We’ve been streaky We obviously shot it very well at Ole Miss, which was huge for us. We’ve said it all year: When we’re making shots, we’re pretty good, because 95 percent of the time we’ve been good defensively.”