Kentucky puts its 8-1 SEC record on the line against 7-2 Florida on Saturday night in the O’Connell Center, so here’s five things about the Gators:
1. Mike White is showing signs he’s a worthy successor to Billy Donovan
The 39-year-old White, son of Duke athletic director Kevin White, was a guard and four-year starter at Ole Miss under Rob Evans (1995-98) and Rod Barnes (1999). The Rebels went to three straight NCAA Tournaments and earned the school’s first NCAA Tourney win during White’s tenure. He was an assistant at Jacksonville State and Ole Miss before becoming head coach at Louisiana Tech in 2011. His four teams were 101-40 there before being tapped last year to succeed Billy Donovan at Florida when Donovan left for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Pretty sizable shoes to fill. Donovan won a pair of NCAA titles and took the Gators to four Final Fours, after all. After Florida went 16-17 in Donovan’s last season, White’s first edition finished 21-15 overall, 9-9 in the SEC and reached the quarterfinals of the NIT.
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With a veteran team returning, the Gators are currently 17-5 overall with those two SEC losses. Their non-conference losses were to current No. 1 Gonzaga 77-72, to Duke 84-74 in New York and now No. 15 Florida State 83-78. After a 5-0 start in conference play, the Gators lost back-to-back games at South Carolina (57-53) and at home to Vanderbilt (68-66).
They’ve recovered nicely sen then, however, winning three straight, each by 30 points or more. The Gators destroyed LSU 106-71 in Baton Rouge, trounced Oklahoma 84-52 in Norman as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, then ripped handed Missouri its 13th straight loss (14th straight SEC loss) 93-54 in Gainesville on Thursday night. That’s the first time a Florida team has done that since Donovan’s 2006-07 championship team.
“With the big distraction of Saturday, I was really proud of the effort, mental focus and maturity we continue to show,” White said afterward.
2. The Gators have plenty of depth
Senior guard Kasey Hill leads the team in average minutes per game at 28.7 and that ranks 19th in the SEC, which gives you an example of just how White goes to his bench. Ten Gators are averaging 13 minutes or more. Six are averaging 20.9 minutes or more.
Florida is averaging 79.3 points per game, but just three Gators are averaging in double figures. KeVaughn Allen leads the way at 13.8 points per game. Canyon Barry, son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry and former UK women’s assistant coach Lynn Norenberg, is next at 12.8 despite not starting a game all season. Devin Robinson is averaging 11.8 points per game.
Chris Chiozza, who is averaging 19.7 minutes per game, became the third Gator in history to produce a triple-double when he scored 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and made 10 assists against Missouri. He joined Corey Brewer and Nick Calathes, who accomplished the feat twice, in Gator lore.
Different Gators have taken star turns. In SEC play, Allen scored 29 in the loss to Vanderbilt, 21 in the win at Arkansas and 23 in the home win over Tennessee. Barry, who has made 27 straight free throws, scored 27 in the Georgia game. Devin Robinson scored 24 points at LSU. Justin Leon scored 19 against Tennessee.
Center John Egbunu has had 11 rebounds against both Arkansas and Georgia. His backup, Kevarrius Hayes, scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the win at Oklahoma. Eric Hester, who has played in just 13 games, scored 16 points at LSU, hitting all five of his three-point attempts.
Florida might not be at full strength Saturday. Freshman wing Keith Stone, averaging 4.3 points and 13.5 minutes per game, missed the second half of the Oklahoma game and the Missouri game with an ear infection. He’s questionable for Kentucky. Stone scored 17 points in Florida’s overtime win over Georgia.
3. Kasey Hill is giving senior leadership
Coming out of high school in 2013, the Umatillla, Florida native was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 point guard prospect and No. 10 prospect overall by ESPN. Hill hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, however. Until now, anyway.
Hill averaged just 5.5 points per game as a freshman, 7.2 as a sophomore and 9.1 last season. He shot just 37.9 percent from the field as a sophomore and 39.1 percent as a junior. never a great perimeter shooter, Hill is just 37-of-155 from three for 23.9 percent.
This year, however, Hill is the unquestioned leader. He’s averaging 9.4 points and is second in the SEC in assists per game at 4.9, behind Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox at 5.7. He’s third in the league in steals at 1.9 per game. He’s a prime reason why the Gators are outscoring opponents 79.3 to 65.6. And he’s playing just 28.7 minutes per game.
Hill had eight assists and just one turnover in the win at Oklahoma. He had had 11 assists in a win over Little Rock. And he’s shooting a career-high 42.3 percent from the floor.
“I just think he’s matured a lot,” White said last month. “He’s a senior who understands it’s his last go-round. There’s more buy-in. He’s worked even harder.”
4. The Gators have been effective at both ends of the floor
Ken Pomeroy’s latest numbers rank Florida ninth overall. The Gators are seventh in defensive efficiency and 20th in offensive efficiency. That’s comparable to Kentucky, which is fifth overall, fourth in offensive efficiency and 15th in defensive efficiency.
Florida ranks sixth in the SEC in field goal percentage at 45.4 percent and fifth in the SEC in field goal percentage defense at 41.4. The Gators are fifth in the league in three-point percentage at 36.0 percent and fourth in three-point defense at 31.6.
They have been a bit erratic from three-point range. They missed all 17 of their three-point attempts in the loss at South Carolina, snapping the program’s streak of 890 games with at least one made three-pointer. Two games later, they made 19 of 33 threes in the romp at LSU. They were 11-of-28 from three in the win over Missouri.
When Florida’s on the defensive end, you must protect the ball. The Gators are second in the SEC in steals at 8.0 per game. They are first in the league in turnover margin at +4.3. Kentucky is second at +3.8.
Don’t foul Barry, who has followed in his father’s footsteps with the underhand free throw motion. As mentioned, Barry has made 27 straight from the line. He’s made 88.2 percent of his free throws on the year and is first in the league in SEC games, making 28 of 31 for 90.3 percent.
5. Florida has made its old arena new again
The Gators no longer play in the O-Done, or the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. It’s the Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
The school spent $64 million on a renovation of the facility that opened in 1980. The arena lost 1,000 seats but received chair backs on all the seats -- it was primarily bleacher seating before -- plus a center-hung scoreboard and four new video boards.
In the past, the O’Connell Center had four small entrances, now it has one big entrance. There is a new club level, premium seating and a club area downstairs.
While construction continued through the first part of the basketball season, Florida played all its games away from Gainesville before finally opening the renovated facility on Dec. 21 against Little Rock.
Florida is 5-1 in its new home with wins over Little Rock, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri. The lone loss was the two-point loss to Vanderbilt on Dec. 21.
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