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How Florida upset Tennessee — and how the Gators can maintain that level of play

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Florida is capable of playing like it did against Tennessee in other games, too. Here’s how that could work.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators staged one of the upsets of the college basketball season on Tuesday night, dominating what had previously been a largely dominant Tennessee squad in a 75-49 victory that saw Florida take the floor without both its indefinitely sidelined best player and the services of two other starters.

Florida hasn’t had a win as strong as this one this season, and while previous such big wins under Mike White haven’t exactly been rare...

...they have also come via different teams with different rosters and different tactics, and those teams all appeared to have higher trajectories than this one does.

So how did this team pull this off? And how likely are the factors that helped the Gators to this win to be reliable parts of their future?

Omar Payne brought it

Last night was Florida’s first game this season without Michigan transfer Colin Castleton, who has bloomed into maybe the Gators’ most important player in the absence of Keyontae Johnson. Omar Payne, who had not started or played more than 21 minutes in any previous contest this year, started and played 27 minutes — and they fit comfortably within his best hour as a Gator, as he had nine points, nine rebounds, and five blocks while helping Florida control the paint defensively and attack it offensively.

And Payne did it without a substantial improvement in any regard beyond focus: His offense came largely on hard rolls to the basket for alley-oops, rather than the post-ups that have proven challenging for him, and his defense was the sort of high-flying stuff he earned a rep for as a freshman, when he posted 10 games with multiple blocks. This is the kind of game that has been possible for Payne since his arrival at Florida.

As a sophomore, though, Payne has been marginalized because of inconsistency, marked by a lack of focus and sharpness that has translated to fumbled balls on the offensive end and fouls aplenty on defense. Payne is turning the ball over on about a quarter of his possessions, and after committing a hefty 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes as a freshman, Payne’s up to 6.4 fouls committed per 40 as a sophomore — a troubling trend. And those numbers include Tuesday night’s performance, in which he committed just one foul and had no turnovers.

Between those struggles and Castleton’s surprisingly large role, Payne had played more than 10 minutes just twice since Florida’s resumption of its season in late December — which is neither a surprise nor a failing for Florida’s coaches, as Castleton playing over the version of Payne we’ve seen all year has made plenty of sense.

Payne playing like this, though, ought to force the coaches’ hands, even if Castleton can return to the lineup at something approaching full health soon. And it’s really up to him to maintain this level of play — “I’m capable of doing it,” he admitted post-game, “so I just need to do it every game.”

The difference between knowing that — which Payne surely did before tonight, given that he had a similar eruption against Auburn last season before fading back to the margins — and proving it is substantial, to be clear. Payne is still young, and it’s still fairer to expect to see the player he’s been for most of his career than the one he’s been at his best.

But it’s clear that he knows he — and we — can hope for a higher level of performance, and that he has the talent to produce it on a less sporadic basis.

Breaking the machine

The most important consequence of Payne — and, to a lesser extent, Jason Jitoboh — playing strong defense in the paint on Tuesday was that Tennessee’s offense looked clueless and punchless.

That, to be clear, was not entirely due to Florida.

Tennessee is first and foremost an excellent defensive team with a lot of players who give effort on the defensive end that exceeds their offensive talents. Yves Pons and John Fulkerson, for example, are both superior defenders and limited offensive players, as Pons isn’t a great shooter (never over 35 percent from three in a season, and at a woeful 19 percent this year) and Fulkerson’s most effective range is about five feet — not unlike that of Castleton, who appears to have a slightly deeper bag of tricks than Tennessee’s big.

The two best shooters on this Vols roster were also unavailable on this night: Jaden Springer, who had made nine of 16 threes in limited action, was out with an ankle injury, while the version of Santiago Vescovi who played was very visibly hampered by a hip problem, and not the hale version that had hit about 40 percent of his threes coming in.

Florida walling up and preventing a lot of drives from turning into easy points helped keep the Vols to a 14-for-40 performance on twos; Florida’s perimeter defense, while good, still yielded some open threes that Tennessee just bricked, and a 3-for-18 night from distance is almost always going to have more to do with bad shooting than great closeouts.

Can Florida take some of the lessons from that defensive performance and apply them going forward? Sure. The Gators now know that they have a premier shot-blocker on hand whether it’s Castleton or Payne — or both — on the floor, and can build a half-court defense around that or entrust either guy with being the last line of defense for a press. (They probably saw enough good defense from Jitoboh in his limited minutes to give Payne more free rein to attack shots without worrying about fouling, too.) Having Niels Lane around to run and jump at shooters is also helpful even if he doesn’t do that as well as Scottie Lewis does. And Tyree Appleby being a pest and forcing live-ball turnovers was a good idea well before last night.

But Florida can approach defense the right way — with their undersized guards focusing on running shooters off the line and funneling drivers to where shot blockers would prefer them to be — and still get burned by threes and makes from teams with more talent than Tennessee. Payne won’t always be a plus-plus presence — he had three fouls in eight minutes against rugged Mississippi State last Saturday, and was mostly lost against Alabama’s four-out assault of drives and threes earlier this month — and Gators’ foes won’t often make just 12 of 25 free throws, either.

McDonald’s tries to keep the McFlurry machine working, after all. It still breaks down sometimes.

Rather than trying to precisely replicate this game, Florida internalizing the principles and process that led to most of the disruption — throwing a wrench into what Tennessee does well by staying disciplined for the whole shot clock and not letting the Vols turn their sparkling defense into offense — and understanding that some of the specific results were fortunate outliers seems prudent.

Depth charge

Maybe the most interesting upshot of last night’s game was how deep on its bench Florida had to — and was willing to — go while playing without its three missing men and seeing Anthony Duruji fall into early foul trouble. Florida played every healthy scholarship player it had for at least seven minutes, and some of them — Lane, Payne, Jitoboh, and Ques Glover — set season (or, in Lane’s case, career) highs in terms of minutes; Osayi Osifo’s 12 minutes were three fewer than the most he’s gotten, and Jitoboh played 13 on Tuesday after playing a total of seven on the season prior to last night.

For the most part, the Gators got something out of each of those players whose roles expanded. Payne’s performance was the most obvious increase over average output, but Lane and Osifo were defensive pests who vacuumed up rebounds (four on the offensive end for Osifo), Jitoboh was a oaken obstacle that Tennessee couldn’t dislodge, and Glover scored 10 points in an instant-offense, scoring guard role that suits him well when his shots fall.

And it wasn’t just the reserves who did more than usual: Tyree Appleby arguably expanded his role by whipping more passes, Noah Locke notably got into the lane for his floaters from 10 feet on multiple occasions, and Tre Mann had an unremarkable night in the box score but helped set Florida’s tone for the evening by making a stellar play to reject an up-and-under drive in the very early goings.

There is a decent argument that managing rotations and getting as much as he can out of every player on his roster has been one of Mike White’s failings while at Florida, as surprising performances by bench-bound players have been somewhat common on nights when everything clicks for the Gators — think of Brandone Francis lighting up West Virginia in 2016, Justin Leon shooting down Virginia in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, or Payne eviscerating Auburn a year ago — and riding his stars has often been his strategy, for better and worse.

But this season, especially, has challenged Florida and White, with Johnson no longer a reliable load-carrier or lodestar, and Florida’s struggles in games without him have had a lot to do with this team not being entirely sure how to replace his production, tenacity, or reliability.

Yet while replacing not just Johnson but Lewis and Castleton, Florida finally got enough from its reserves to exceed expectations — which, in turn, should be a reminder that experimentation and dice-rolling can, in fact, work out. It won’t be every night that Lane and Osifo can play together and keep Florida at par with an opponent, but some nights will allow that opportunity; similarly, playing Samson Ruzhentsev and hoping to get a three or two from him is probably worth entertaining, as is playing Payne and Castleton together in an attempt to own the paint.

There were multiple junctures in Tuesday night’s game when Florida’s five on the floor made little sense as a coherent lineup based on preconceived ideas about what those players could do — but those players surprised by doing their jobs and then some. Embracing the weirdness of this year and the challenges of making illogical lineups or strategies make sense when that’s all that is available might just reveal new configurations or tactics that help make this team more than mediocre.

It would be folly, of course, to expect this Florida team to now play like it did against Tennessee from here on out this season. But it was unfathomable that they would produce the performance we saw as of tip-off.

Expecting the unexpected is quixotic at best; enjoying or learning from it, on the other hand, might be both enjoyable and elevating.