Florida's 76-56 win over Richmond on Tuesday night, while in keeping with the Gators' strong recent history against non-conference teams at home in December — Florida hasn't lost a December home game since 2010, when Jacksonville upset the Gators in the O'Connell Center five days before Christmas — was still a bit of a surprise.
And for the Gators, it was a good one.
Florida began Tuesday at No. 29 in KenPom; now, for the first time since early January 2015, the Gators are back in the top 25, vaulting to No. 23 after squishing the Spiders. The Gators' defense is now sixth nationally in adjusted efficiency, and while Florida's offense is just No. 82, the Gators have produced at least 1.00 points per possession in every game since a woeful shooting night against Navy in their season opener.
The shooting hasn't gotten much better. The Gators have posted an effective field goal percentage of more than 50 percent just once this season, torching North Carolina A&T with a 64.5 percent clip.
But Florida's figured out its offense, to a degree.
The best thing the Gators do is rebound ferociously, especially after their own misses. Florida now ranks 27th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and that has led to a lot of second-chance points — more than 10 in every Florida win this year, and a stunning 49 over games against the Gators' last two foes, Florida Gulf Coast and Richmond.
To put those numbers in some perspective, Kentucky and its fearsome frontcourt netted just 31 second-chance points total over three meetings with Florida in 2014-15, and that was against a Florida team that had the overmatched Jon Horford and the inconsistent Chris Walker doing most of the work underneath.
Put more simply, the Gators are now cleaning the glass and cleaning clocks as a result.
That can be chalked up largely to the addition of John Egbunu. The former South Florida big man was a menace inside for the Bulls, and has only improved since coming to Florida; he's grabbing offensive rebounds on 13.7 percent of his possessions.
But he's not alone: Egbunu is typically paired with Dorian Finney-Smith, who snags offensive rebounds on 10.5 percent of his possessions, or Devin Robinson, who captures them on 9.6 percent of his possessions.
And they're not Florida's only players at or near that 10 percent mark: Schuyler Rimmer is nabbing offensive rebounds on 11.0 percent of possessions, and freshman Kevarrius Hayes is grabbing them on 15.3 percent of his possessions. Rimmer and Hayes don't play enough to be ranked nationally by KenPom in the category, but Rimmer would be near the top 200 at his rate — and Hayes would make the top 50. (Egbunu is No. 92, Finney-Smith is No. 248, and Robinson is No. 324.)
Egbunu, Finney-Smith, Robinson, and Hayes all have at least 12 offensive boards in 2015, with DeVon Walker (!) at nine and Rimmer at six. Those are impressive tallies — especially because Florida needs offensive rebounds to survive right now.
The Gators are shooting 62.4 percent on shots at the rim, according to hoop-math.com, but just 31.9 percent on two-point jumpers, and 30.4 percent on threes. Those are the stats of a team that either cannot shoot jumpers, or one that has not made many of note. And while I suspect Florida's been a little cold to start the season and is underperforming its true talent level, those stats also undeniably point to the fact that Florida can have success at the rim.
This team is making good on second chances, too, shooting 54.2 percent on putbacks at the rim. All five of those Florida players with at least six offensive boards have at least four putback tries this year (Egbunu has nine; the rest have four), too, and so all five of them have taken at least 18.8 percent of their total shots on putbacks.
Overall, Florida's taken 37.2 percent of its shots at the rim, with a renewed focus on getting the ball to post player (Egbunu and Finney-Smith, especially) coming as a welcome change from a 2014-15 team that couldn't rely on any big man to create shots down low. That's very good shot distribution, for a simple reason: Those shots are better, and about the only reliably good ones Florida can even hope for from its roster at the moment.
Egbunu, Finney-Smith, Robinson, and Kasey Hill have all made at least 11 shots at the rim this year. No Florida player has made more than nine two-point jumpers, and only Finney-Smith has more than nine threes.
You can justify shooting a poorer percentage on threes than on twos — obviously, threes are worth more. Finney-Smith may "only" be making 35.7 percent of his threes, but that still means a three from him has had an expected value of 1.07 points this season.
Yet on twos at the rim, he's shooting a blistering 77.4 percent; those shots have an expected value of 1.55 points, and he'd need to be making more than 50 percent of his threes to match that number.
Finney-Smith's not Florida's only incredibly efficient finisher near the basket, either. Robinson's making 73.3 percent of his shots at the rim (1.46 PPS) and Egbunu's 71.1 percent (1.42 PPS) isn't far behind. In smaller sample sizes, Rimmer (72.7 percent; 1.45 PPS) and Hayes (75.0 percent; 1.50 PPS) are right there with them.
And those efficient numbers from Florida's bigs — every one of those players is at least 6'8" — have helped cover for a host of other sins of inefficiency.
Hill's continued to struggle as a finisher, making a woeful 42.3 percent of his shots at the rim (0.85 PPS), but Chris Chiozza's even worse, making 28.6 percent (0.57 PPS) of his rim attempts. Only Robinson and Chiozza are making even half of their two-point jumpers, and Finney-Smith is an exceptionally terrible 3-for-18 on those shots (16.6 percent; 0.33 PPS) after making a bad-but-not-totally-unforgivable 20 of 71 two-point jumpers (28.6 percent; 0.57 PPS) in 2014-15.
And the only Gators making more than 40 percent of their threes so far are Chiozza, whose 9-for-19 performance might be sustainable, and Hill, whose 4-for-7 performance screams "This is an unsustainable mark from a small sample size."
But while Florida's still prone to jacking threes and settling for inefficient midrange jumpers, it's not as prone as it was. The Gators shot 29 threes against North Carolina A&T, and 32 against Saint Joseph's; in the four games since, Florida's averaged 22 per contest. Florida also made 11 layups and six dunks against Richmond, both impressive tallies.
And while open threes can be more efficient than layups and dunks, they're rarely "easier." Florida developing the ability to create layup and dunk chances is promising, because for all of the many variables in a given game, the best strategies in basketball revolve around one concept at their roots: It's easiest to win when you take and make easy shots and force your opponents to take hard ones.
I've barely even mentioned Florida's defense in this piece because it's been great at doing the latter — as an example, Richmond didn't even have a dunk attempt on Tuesday night, and while it made four layups, none came until the second half. Florida's only allowed Purdue to score more than 0.87 points per possession this season, and the Boilermakers are so good, have such extraordinary personnel, and shot so well from three that I'm inclined to think of that as an outlier for the time being.
Defense hasn't been the problem for Florida except in a few games since the beginning of the 2014-15 season; offense has. And the offense appears to be resolving many of its issues.
That bodes well for a December schedule that now turns to the brutal.
Florida plays Miami and Michigan State, two top-20 KenPom teams, on the road next week, and won't be favored to win either game. An Orange Bowl Classic against Oklahoma State in Sunrise should see the Gators as slight favorites, as will a game against Florida State at home, but the only breather left before conference play begins is a home game against Jacksonville three days before Christmas. Florida's got a fine 6-1 record now, but finishing the first two months of the season at 7-5 isn't out of the question.
And yet: With an offense that can get easy shots and avoid the temptation of settling for difficult ones, and a defense that does a hell of a job of making those two things arduous for opponents, Florida shouldn't see this December slate as one of obstacles, but one of opportunities. If Florida takes down Miami and holds serve at home, the Gators will be in excellent shape for not just an NCAA Tournament berth, but a decent seed entering conference play; if the Gators somehow go unbeaten in December, they should have a top-15 ranking before their name in early January.
Offensive development is what Florida has needed on the court for the last 13 months. It might finally be here, and that's a fine early Christmas present.
Here's hoping the Gators have more under their tree.