Many pundits and so-called experts, myself included, expected Mike White’s Florida Gators to not just excel in SEC play, but to contend for the Final Four and the national championship.
White returned two stellar sophomores in Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard. Locke started 26 games as a freshman and shot 38 percent from long range, on a team-high 214 attempts. With another year to grow and develop, Locke looked capable of building his offensive game beyond just his touch from outside.
Nembhard, meanwhile, had a very promising freshman season. The point guard developed into one of the best passers in the SEC, averaging 5.4 assists per game and posting the second best assist rate in the conference. He followed his freshman season with an invite to play for Team Canada at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. In limited minutes during the Canadian team’s disappointing performance in China, Nembhard looked the part of a future NBA contributor, raising expectations for his sophomore season in Gainesville.
Florida’s roster looked far deeper than just Nembhard and Locke. Keyonte Johnson returned after 20 starts and 8.1 points per game as a freshman. Mike White brought in the 8th ranked recruiting class (per 247 Sports), including two five-star, top 25-ranked recruits in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. To top things off, Florida landed the top available immediate transfer player, former Virginia Tech star Kerry Blackshear Jr.
In three seasons as a Hokie, Blackshear posted more than 1,100 points and 600 rebounds. He had a chance to enter the 2019-20 season as a prime contender for first team All-American honors and even on the short list of National Player of the Year candidates. Blackshear’s presence appeared to elevate the Gators from a top tier SEC team to one of the teams to bet on to cut down the nets in Atlanta in April.
So far this season, Florida has looked less like a title team and more like a bubble bound mess. The Gators are 7-4 this season with just one win over a top 75 KenPom team, in five tries against that level of competition. Though Florida has thankfully avoided a disastrous loss, with all four defeats coming at the hands of top 55 competition, the Gators have looked shaky and narrowly avoided a resume-killing loss on several occasions. Florida has beaten Towson, St. Joseph’s, and Marshall by single-digits. St. Joe’s was within three points of the Gators in the game’s final minutes, Marshall led by as many as eight in the second half, and Towson had Florida on the ropes, tying the game with under two minutes to play.
While records and performance in nonconference play can be misleading or corrected as the season wears on, Florida’s offensive woes are troubling. Some of them can be explained away by cold early season shooting. Locke, Nembhard, Johnson, and Blackshear are all shooting below their career marks from long range. Florida’s freshman have shot even worse. The Gators’ three freshman contributors, Lewis, Mann, and Ques Glover, have combined to shoot 14 for 61 from outside the arc, good for a putrid 22.9 percent. As a team, Florida ranks in the 20th percentile in 3-point shooting so far this season.
Should the Florida shooters start to make shots more consistently, much of the Gators trouble on the offensive end would be alleviated. Poor shooting, however, figures to be a symptom of a larger problem.
White’s offensive system is driven largely by on-ball screen actions, primarily with the ball in Nembhard’s hands and with Blackshear as the screener. In theory, that’s a potent combination. Nembhard’s elite court vision makes him an ideal playmaker in the pick-and-roll, especially with a skilled screener like Blackshear involved in the play.
On this clip, he patiently waits for the defense to react, and, like a quarterback manipulating a free safety, he steers a defender with his eyes and finds the resulting open teammate by the rim.
So far this season, opposing teams have collapsed into the paint and forced Florida ballhandlers to pass out to the perimeter, rather than attacking the paint via dribble-drive or an entry pass to Blackshear. Without reliable shooting on the perimeter, this has left Florida to settle for missed threes or forces Florida’s less capable playmakers into decision making roles.
That has meant questionable shot selection from Florida’s wings. In the clip below, Nembhard uses a Blackshear screen, finds Locke on a kick-out pass that should lead to an attack of the paint. Instead, Locke takes a brutal step-back fadeaway jumper.
When a tough shot isn’t being forced, Florida instead is bogged down by constant a constant re-setting of the offense and re-screen action. Few teams as talented as Florida look as slow or as murky on the offensive end as the Gators do this year.
It’s sloppy, isolated, and disjointed. Florida ranks 306th in the nation in assist rate. For a team built like this, without any pure go-to scorers, the Gators offense needs to be built around sharing the ball to find optimal scoring chances.
Blackshear, and his usage within the Gator offense, sits at the heart of Florida’s issues. He’s shooting less often than he did as a junior at Virginia Tech and getting less frequent quality chances to score. This season, Blackshear is hoisting 2.3 more threes per 100 possessions than he did in his career as a Hokie, and while his free throw attempts have also increased, he’s not getting chances to score on the block where he excels.
Perhaps this is all a mirage that clears up when the Gators start to make shots later in the season. It could also be the effect of starting multiple freshmen and newcomers, with little pre-existing chemistry built into the team. Some teams pick that up quickly. Others take time to mesh together.
If this team does start to figure things out and share the ball offensively, they still have Final Four aspirations. If not, people will start to ask questions about Mike White. If he couldn’t put this team on the right track, his doubters will get louder.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.