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Florida vs. La Salle, Game Thread: Gators exploring selves as they face Explorers

Florida is trying to determine its identity. Doing that in wins is better than doing so in losses.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Ah: Another early-season weekday matchup for the Florida Gators, and another game that is airing solely via SEC Network+ streaming (or ESPN+, if you have it). That’s what tonight’s game against La Salle (7 p.m.) is for most of us.

For the Gators, it’s a chance to further investigate what they should be.

Florida rebounded from a bruising loss to Florida State last Tuesday in its season opener by shutting down an overmatched Charleston Southern team last Friday in its home opener, but coach Mike White’s refrain to media members since has been closer to “We’re figuring it out” than “We’ve figured it out.”

This makes sense, of course: Florida is two games into what could be a 40-game season, and even though White has an upperclassman-laden team, those players’ roles were in large part defined by their relationship to former Florida point guard Chris Chiozza, who led this team a year ago and had been at least a significant steadying force as Kasey Hill’s understudy prior to that. While KeVaughn Allen and Kevarrius Hayes have played three previous seasons as Gators, neither had previously played without Chiozza as a teammate prior to last week; the latter is true for Jalen Hudson and Keith Stone, who had fewer seasons as Gators to their name, too.

And while it’s a bit of an excuse to write off a poor or passive performance from any of the many Gators who turned them in in Tallahassee as a result of adjusting to a Cheese-free offense or defense, not having him as a floor general is a meaningful change for a team that had problems communicating even with the more commanding Chiozza around. If the reticent Allen and amiable Hudson were that way with a galvanizing force, why wouldn’t they be more so without one?

Getting that scoring duo, Hayes, and Stone untracked and refashioned as the players they need to be for Florida to succeed in 2018-19 will be White’s great task of the year, and it’s fortunate that teams like La Salle will present relatively little challenge during Florida’s frequently spiky non-conference schedule. It’s easier to deal with figuring out just how much Hayes should factor into most offensive possessions — probably not much, to be honest — or how many shots Stone should be allowed to generate off the dribble against an 0-2 team that dropped its home opener to lowly Lafayette than it would be against Oklahoma or Butler, after all.

The Explorers are six years and one coach removed from their last NCAA Tournament trip, which happened under John Giannini and turned into an unlikely Sweet Sixteen run that terminated at the hands of Wichita State. Giannini didn’t win 20 games again after chalking up 24 dubs with that 2012-13 squad, though, and he and the Explorers mutually parted ways after last season, leading to former Villanova assistant and Philly lifer Ashley Howard taking over one of the city’s Big 5 teams with the hopes of returning it to relevance.

Howard has a task before him. While point guard Pookie Powell returned from last year’s Explorers, La Salle lost three senior starters from a team that did not string together three consecutive wins after its 3-0 start, and the Explorers are winless this year despite sophomore wing Isiah Deas (8-for-16 on threes) stepping up to assist Powell.

Expect those two, guard Traci Carter, and big Miles Brookins to be La Salle’s leaders tonight, as they’re the Explorers’ only players with more than 10 points on the year. But expect the Gators, undersized in their own right, to feast on the offensive glass, where La Salle has given up 26 offensive boards in two games, conceding them on nearly 40 percent of their defensive possessions. La Salle does not turn the ball over much (18 turnovers in 155 possessions over two games), which has the potential to thwart maybe Florida’s best means of getting good shots — steals turning into transition opportunities — but offensive rebounds function similarly to turnovers in terms of creating surplus possessions for an offense, and Florida should be ready to crash the glass this evening.

If they don’t, though, and the better marksmen on La Salle’s roster have their aim calibrated, this could be a long night for the Gators — even one that ends with more soul-searching after a loss.