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Florida vs. Saint Joseph’s, Game Thread: Gators seek to rebound by downing Hawks

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Will a change in scenery help cure Florida’s shooting and scoring woes?

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators sit at 2-2 on the young 2019-20 men’s college basketball season, well short of both the record many expected and the form many fans hoped to see out of the most talented team of Mike White’s tenure.

The good and bad news for the Gators is that their schedule doesn’t get any easier for most of the rest of the non-conference schedule — which means more chances to start building an NCAA Tournament resume, sure, but also more opportunities to stub their toes.

Meeting Saint Joseph’s in the first game of the 2019 Charleston Classic (2 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN) on this Thursday afternoon is more the latter than the former.

Yeah, sure: The Hawks did what Florida couldn’t in downing UConn in an on-campus game last week, one that was technically part of the Classic because college basketball’s tournament rules are as meaningful as Whose Line Is It Anyway? points. Junior Ryan Daly made six of the 13 St. Joe’s threes on the day en route to 30 points, also grabbing eight boards and dishing three assists, and the Hawks made a 17-2 run early and led by as many as 27 points in that game, all while the Huskies made a pitiful eight of 34 twos in that game — terrible shooting they naturally did not reprise against Florida.

That was the sort of early-season upset in which one team being hot and one being cold (mostly, as UConn also hit 14 threes) results in an unexpected outcome.

Florida’s problem thus far is that it has been so cold that the other teams haven’t really needed to be hot at all. The Gators are shooting just 24.1 percent from three this year, well south of No. 300 nationally and sixth from the bottom among power-conference schools.

And while Virginia and Kentucky are among the five brand-name teams that have been worse than Florida from three, those two teams have largely — ‘sup, Evansville? — survived their shooting woes through better fortune in scheduling and better play inside: Florida is also making just 46 percent of its twos, which combines with its rancid marksmanship from distance to make White’s bunch the only power-conference team worse than No. 300 in effective field goal percentage thus far this year.

That’s largely on the Gators’ guards, as Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Keyontae Johnson have each been just fine inside and mostly inoffensive from deep. (Blackshear’s just 2-for-9, but Johnson’s 3-for-6 performance makes him Florida’s best shooter by percentage this year — though it also makes his flinching at a potential game-tying three at UConn even more exasperating.) But none of Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Tre Mann, or Scottie Lewis — a wing, if not a pure guard — is shooting better than 50 percent inside the arc or 30 percent beyond it, and Nembhard and Locke are both under 30 percent on either side of the line.

And it’s not like shots haven’t been there for the Gators to take. They simply haven’t made them, leaving Blackshear to shoulder a sizable load and making developments like Nembhard taking over for a half in Storrs both welcome (for its effectiveness) and worrisome (for how low on the list of preferred offensive identities that would be).

If Blackshear can avoid foul trouble and Florida can make at least a few shots, it should have little problem with the Hawks, barring them getting hot both inside and out. St. Joe’s comes in playing at breakneck speed and averaging more than 11 made threes per game and second nationally in three point attempt percentage, but that style hasn’t been all that effective beyond the UConn upset. 15 threes didn’t get the Hawks a win over Old Dominion, and 12 more couldn’t stop Loyola Chicago; their dubs have come when they have also been effective inside, something that could be difficult against Florida’s strong defense.

And if Florida can’t make at least a few shots against the Hawks, who are allowing foes to shoot almost 44 percent from three, its shooting may just be a fatal flaw.

But Florida is very much in the show-and-prove stage, and needs a fine performance both to restore its reputation and to validate its process. A win today, and especially an emphatic one, could go a long way for this team, even if the Hawks wouldn’t provide a premier pelt.