For the second — maybe third — straight game of the 2018 Battle 4 Atlantis, the Florida Gators played solid defensive basketball, forcing a talented opponent to score against tough schemes and close guarding.
But against Butler on Friday night, the Gators could not do that scoring in their own right, wilting on offense against an equally stout Bulldogs defense and ultimately falling in a dispiriting 61-54 defeat.
Kamar Baldwin — who looked like a potential All-American on the night — led Butler with 19 points, six rebounds, and five assists, and was joined in taking and making tough shots by Paul Jorgensen, who had 16 points and seven boards and was the only Butler player to make multiple threes. And the Bulldogs persevered after Florida clamped them to end the first half, recovering from a six-point deficit and a scoring drought with a 17-4 run that briefly put the Gators up by seven.
But Baldwin — who else? — would make a shot as time expired in the first half to shave Florida’s lead to just five points entering the locker room. And the Gators could not score to keep it in the second frame.
After the teams traded baskets in the first two minutes of the second half, Butler took back the lead with a 15-6 run — and though Florida would answer with its own 5-0 spurt even after a bizarre common foul on Dontay Bassett for what appeared to be mutual locking of arms while jostling for a rebound got inexplicably upgraded to a flagrant foul, that only got the Gators the lead at 45-44.
It would be the final time the Gators led on the night, as Florida would score just nine points in the final 11:14 of play, and could not narrow Butler’s lead despite allowing just two field goals in the final 9:49.
Of course, Florida only made three field goals in that same stretch: The first was a tricky leaner through contact that was the night’s lone positive contribution from Jalen Hudson, who began this game on the bench, finished with two points on 1-for-5 shooting, and missed the free throw on his and-one try; the last was KeVaughn Allen’s only make of the evening, on a layup Butler more or less conceded with under 30 seconds to play and a six-point lead. (In between, Kevarrius Hayes got his third two of the night to fall.)
Allen and Hudson combined for five points on 2-for-10 shooting — with identical 0-for-3 performances from distance — to make this game the first one this year that neither player mustered double-digit points for the Gators, and senior Keith Stone mustered just five points of his own on nine shots. And that left a lot of slack for Hayes (nine points, six boards) and Florida’s talented but very green underclassmen to pick up.
Andrew Nembhard (11 points, seven assists, five rebounds, zero turnovers) and Deaundrae Ballard (11 points in 20 minutes) gamely tried to hold the rope. But Noah Locke (five points, 1-for-5 from three) and Keyontae Johnson (five points on five shots) were largely ineffective, Bassett was a non-factor, and Mike Okauru played just two minutes, registering one assist.
Clearly, through six games, Florida appears to be a very good defensive team that may well be capable of greatness on that end. The Gators have kept every team but a Florida State squad that remains undefeated (and is Final Four-caliber) under 70 points this year, and only Butler joined FSU in cracking a point per possession against the swarming Florida defense, which pairs the best version of a press Mike White has configured with the Gators with a halfcourt defense that can stack up stops and switch dogged defenders at most positions.
But Florida is also a deeply flawed team on offense, especially when its designated scorers — Allen, Hudson, and Stone — are not scoring or making shots. Nembhard is a gifted point guard who has shown flashes of brilliance as a passer and creator for himself and others, but he is not the whirling dervish that Chris Chiozza was, and his more deliberate drives are taking time for this roster to acclimate to at the same time those three primary scorers are trying to deal with the added responsibilities of being seniors and the putative leaders on a team that revolved around Chiozza and Egor Koulechov a year ago.
Whether those players can excel and score isn’t really debatable, because they have. But whether they will do that this year is very much in question.
And White’s job, over a non-conference schedule that looks more and more like it will tax the Gators significantly, is to find out whether those players can be the solutions to the problems that threaten to doom a Florida season almost before it has begun.