After 11 losses, No. 23 Florida finds way before postseason
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Mike White has a forbidden phrase for his staff, a rule implemented just a few weeks ago.
No one is allowed to say “PK80” in front of the team. Florida played well in the late-November tournament in Portland, Oregon, the Phil Knight Invitational, a 16-team tourney that celebrated the Nike co-founder’s 80th birthday. The Gators vaulted to No. 5 in the AP poll.
After losing six of eight in conference play, White decided he didn’t want to hear about the tournament any more. It’s banned in scouting breakdowns, video sessions and practices.
“All the noise that our guys hear is, ‘Well, you guys were so good then,‘” White said, referring to the late-November tournament in Portland, Oregon, that helped vault the Gators to No. 5 in The Associated Press’ college basketball poll. “We were horrific defensively.
“We were playing really, really fast and we were getting open looks, and that’s before people started grinding that thing out against us. We looked a little bit different. All the reminders that our guys get, all the exterior noise about, ‘PK80 this, PK80 that,’ I didn’t think it was healthy for our guys to continue to hear that. Let’s just focus on today. Let’s focus on getting better.”
White’s new directive coincided with the start of a significant turnaround for the 23rd-ranked Gators (20-11, 11-7 Southeastern Conference), who are back in the poll after winning three in a row.
Florida is playing its best basketball of the season heading into the SEC Tournament in St. Louis. White’s team beat then-No. 12 Auburn , thumped Alabama on the road and handled then-No. 23 Kentucky in the regular-season finale.
Those victories helped the Gators earn the No. 3 seed in the 14-team tournament. Florida will play Arkansas, South Carolina or Mississippi in the quarterfinals Friday night.
“We’ve just got to stay in this groove, said guard Jalen Hudson, who was named co-SEC player of the week Monday. “We’ve got a good thing going.”
Just in time for postseason play, too.
“Great timing,” Hudson added. “Couldn’t have been better.”
The Gators thought they had it all figured out in Portland. They scored 108 and 111 on consecutive nights in wins against Stanford and Gonzaga, respectively, and then had a 17-point lead against then-No. 1 Duke in the second of two title games during the PK80 tournament.
Florida blew that big lead to the Blue Devils, but still rose in the rankings.
White cautioned anyone who would listen that his team wasn’t playing the kind of defense needed to sustain success and overcome a poor shooting performance. It came to light the next week when the Gators lost consecutive home games to Florida State and Loyola Chicago.
That started an up-and-down trend for a team that featured several newcomers, led by Hudson and fellow guard Egor Koulechov. Florida reached a low point last month when it dropped six of eight in league play.
One positive was noticeable during the slump: The Gators were considerably better on the defensive end. They finished with second-best defensive efficiency rating in SEC play.
That combined with an offensive resurgence — Florida has made 30 3-pointers in the last three games — has the team peaking at the right time.
“We finally found our roles and embraced them,” senior point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We’re just doing a good job of playing harder than we were and playing defense the whole game. If we can’t score, we’re not going to let the other team score either.”
That wasn’t the case during the PK80.
Now, Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone are playing the best defense of their careers. And between Chiozza, Hudson, Koulechov and Allen, Florida has four guys capable of getting hot on any given day. Equally important, Stone and Kavarrius Hayes are holding their own in the post despite being outsized and playing out of position.
“You try to find your best identity, the best version of each one of these guys and then the best version of us together,” White said. “These guys came a long way and learned how to play together. ... I wish it didn’t take this long, but I’m really pleased with how we’re playing right now.”