NEWARK — Calling Florida desperate was probably too strong.
The Gators, who entered the week ranked No. 5 in the country, had lost three straight prior to their date with No. 17 Cincinnati in the Never Forget Classic. They had blown a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes against then-No. 1 Duke. Then they lost by 17 points at home to arch-rival Florida State two days before they handed Loyola-Chicago their best win of the year – decade? – by allowing the Ramblers to waltz into the O-Dome and leave with a win.
Florida was on the verge of a crisis that was nipped in the bud on Saturday. The Gators got 21 points from Egor Koulechov while Chris Chiozza added 15 points and six assists, including the final six points of the game, as the Gators knocked off No. 17 Cincinnati, 66-60.
“We grew up a little bit tonight,” head coach Mike White said. “That’s the most amount of toughness we’ve shown.”
That was a common theme in Florida’s press conference. That’s what the Gators attributed their recent run of bad form. Toughness, or a lack of it, and not just the physical variety. Yes, they struggled to get the stops they needed to get on the defensive side of the ball, but they also struggled to run their offense the way it’s supposed to be run. They struggled to make shots they typically make. They settled for difficult shots instead of making the right pass for an easier look.
Most importantly, they failed to let the past be the past. Having a short memory is a gift for an athlete, and the Gators didn’t have the mental toughness to forget.
Or so they say.
“To be honest, a part of our shooting struggles has been overthinking,” White said. Florida entered Monday night’s matchup with the Seminoles shooting 46 percent from three while attempting 25 threes a night. In their two losses this week, Florida was 8-for-44 (18 percent) from three, including a horrid 2-for-19 performance against Loyola.
On Saturday, the Gators knocked down 6-of-15 threes they shot, and only attempted a single three in the first 10 minutes of the game.
“We just have so many people on the offensive end that can put the ball in the basket,” Chiozza said, and the majority of those players are at their best when they can operate in isolation. Koulechov, Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen. Those guys are tough-shot makers, but the problem with being a tough-shot maker is that, by definition, tough-shots are not easy to make. Particularly when you’re struggling. “We talked about trying to get a good shot every possession. We have guys that can make tough shots, but we don’t want to have to rely on that. We really focused on not taking anything tough tonight, get the ball flowing around again. Moving the ball, getting great shots.”
“I thought tonight was more of a happy medium,” White added, and the benefits of that was that the Gators woke up on the defensive end.
The fact of the matter is that this is never going to be a great defensive team. They play four guards and they lack elite individual defenders at certain positions. This isn’t like last year’s Florida team, which was the second-best defense in the country, according to KenPom. They don’t have to be great, however, not with how explosive they can be offensively.
They just need to be active.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do defensively,” White said, but that wasn’t the story on Saturday. Florida tried a few different looks, doubling Cincinnati’s bigs – Gary Clark and Kyle Washington were both held to just eight field goals attempts – and trying to fluster Cincinnati, and it worked. Florida forced 21 turnovers on a night where Cincinnati had just four assists.
“I thought we were really scrappy, flying around,” White said. “I thought our rotations were really good, we got our hands on a bunch of passes.”
And that may be more promising than the improved three-point shooting.
As the saying goes, live by the three, die by the three, and Florida, at two different times this past week, died by the three. On Saturday, they beat the No. 17 team in the country, but for a team that averaged 11.5 made threes for the season’s first six games, they didn’t have to live by them.
Florida got enough good shots. They got enough rebounds. They got enough stops. They were tough enough, and that is a great sign moving forward.
This is not a top five team. They’re probably not a top ten team. But they are a team that can beat anyone in the country on their night, and they proved on Saturday that it doesn’t necessarily have to be their night for them to play with one of the best.
“It’s been a tough week for us, that’s not secret,” Koulechov said. “I thought we were really soft this past week, but we took a step forward today with that against a tough team.”