After years of groaning about an increasingly glacial tempo, the Florida Gators men of the hardwood are playing the sort of fast-paced basketball that helped propel Billy Donovan’s Gators to their initial fame and relevance in the “Billyball” era and was a significant selling point when Mike White was hired from Louisiana Tech to replace Donovan in 2015.
What they haven’t done this season, at least as of yet, is knock off a clearly NCAA Tournament-caliber foe at this new pace of play.
Enter the LSU Tigers, and Florida’s first Saturday showdown (2 p.m, CBS or CBS Sports Online) of its SEC schedule.
Will Wade has rebuilt LSU — which was a peaks-and-valleys program under Johnny Jones — as a consistently good one via strong-ass recruiting, the sort that leaves Darius Days, Javonte Smart, and Trendon Watford in Baton Rouge after the departures of a Tremont Waters or a Naz Reid, and the kind that nets freshman stars like Cameron Thomas. The Tigers went just 21-10 last year, but were squarely within the likely NCAA Tournament field at the moment the season was ended, and would have been capable of reaching a second straight Sweet Sixteen behind a potent offense.
But Wade’s teams have been good to great at scoring the ball and indifferent to incompetent on defense: Last year’s Tigers were fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, but 179th in adjusted defensive efficiency; this year, through seven games, the split is fifth and 107th.
And the Tigers’ results show little rhyme or reason to their defensive efforts: SIU Edwardsville and Nicholls State each topped a point per possession, but LSU put the screws to Southeastern Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, Sam Houston State, and Texas A&M, keeping all of them at or below about 0.85 points per trip.
Plus, in its lone loss thus far in its 6-1 campaign, LSU coughed up a woeful 1.28 points per possession to Saint Louis, which made 10 threes and about two thirds of its twos and shot just 14 free throws. The Tigers scored 1.23 points per possession in their own right and made a run down the stretch but still never led after allowing a 16-2 run in the first half and lost by four after closing the Billikens’ lead to a single point with less than a minute to play.
And, well, Florida defends a bit better than Saint Louis does.
The Gators come into Saturday’s meeting at No. 21 in adjusted defensive efficiency, a number skewed significantly by their lone loss to Florida State — in which they gave up more than a point per possession for the only time this season after seeing a teammate crumple to the floor and needing to be asked every media timeout whether they wanted to continue playing. Toss that out, and the Gators have held three of four foes under 0.92 points per possession; only Vanderbilt came within sniffing distance of a point per trip, and the Commodores only did so largely because they made eight of 20 threes.
They still lost by 19 on their home floor despite the game being Florida’s first since Keyontae Johnson went down 18 days prior and first full contest without him. If that implies that the Gators still have room to grow and improve as a new team that effectively lost its best player to a potentially season-ending injury, it’s a scary prospect.
Probably, there’s both some distance between Florida and its ceiling and some regression due for these Gators, given that Scottie Lewis shooting 58 percent from three and Colin Castleton making three of every four attempts both seem like unsustainable rates. But Lewis is one of three Gators shooting 42 percent or better from three, and Castleton one of two Gators making 70 percent of their twos; Florida also has players who have started slowly, like Anthony Duruji, and the Gators having played just six games and gotten a mere handful of practices in with close to their full roster, pre- and post-Johnson’s collapse.
These Gators have a lot of time left to jell and excel beyond their current level — and that level is already quite good. A fine performance against a game LSU squad on this Saturday would serve national notice about how high these Gators could ultimately fly.