With biggest, final chapters of season ahead, Gators must use the SEC Tournament to get better

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It’s no secret that Florida’s season has been a roller coaster.

At various points in the 2017-18 season, the Gators resembled a Final Four contender. At others, they looked like a team that wasn’t good enough to be invited in the CBI. The resume they’re put together more than backs up the eye test’s positive result for bipolar disorder, too; Florida boasts wins against Cincinnati, Auburn and Gonzaga while also sporting losses to Loyola Chicago, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and most embarrassingly of all, Georgia twice.

The ups and downs of the season have been so drastic, so abrupt and so wildly varying in duration that projecting this team to do anything in the NCAA Tournament- which, by the way, Florida was in danger of not reaching two short weeks ago- is a risky bet.

But while it’s impossible to project Florida’s NCAA Tournament fate, they can definitely use this week’s SEC Tournament to shore up a few things and install some backup plans in case their shooting is off.

First and foremost, the Gators have to defend the three point line. Their failure to do so cost them a win against Georgia a few weeks ago, and that’s on both the players for not realizing that a six point lead with under a minute to go called for guarding the perimeter and Mike White for not ordering them to.

Of course, some teams are naturally going to make them defend against the outside more than others. Villanova, the nation’s highest scoring offense and fourth highest three point scoring team, would be an example of a team that the Gators would need to keep a sharp eye on the perimeter against, while Kentucky, who makes the ninth fewest three pointers per game in the country, wouldn’t require such tight perimeter defense.

But regardless of the opponent, the Gators are going to have to be ready to sprint out toward the three point line and challenge outside shots late in tight games. Part of that is just realizing when the opponent is more prone to shooting threes, and part of that is being in a position to get out there quickly enough to contest the three. Florida’s failure to defend the three at key moments this year has been due to a combination of those two factors, plus White’s admittedly infrequent yet mysterious penchant for ordering zone defenses at inopportune times.

Second, Florida has to work on their ball movement this weekend. Sometimes, even the best shooters are going to miss open shots, and there really isn’t a way to be able to tell that in advance, but you can increase the odds of making jumpers with a well-run offensive set. Which is something Florida has struggled with this year, but seems to be improving with.

It’s hard to tell which of their offensive habits, good and bad alike, the Gators will fall back on in the Big Dance, but this SEC Tournament can be used to bury the bad habits, and hone their good habits. So no more isolations for Chris Chiozza when he’s having a bad night, no more hoisting up threes with a pair of defenders in your face and no more off-balance jumpers six seconds into the shot clock. Rather, let’s see Florida swing the ball around the perimeter, look to feed the post when possible, and simply have a distinct purpose for every offensive possession.

Sometimes, one more pass, whether a drive and kick out or simply an additional pass around the three point line can be the difference between a productive trip down the floor and an unproductive one. And simply forcing teams to defend for the entirety of the 30 second shot clock will eventually tire them out, too. That’s not saying Florida has to slow the game down, because they’re deadly when they go fast and quite frankly awful when they go slow, but when the numbers aren’t there in transition it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to play a half court game because good ball movement- which they have only demonstrated in brief flashes this year- is how you create opportunities in it.

Finally, the Gators have to work on their inside game. We’re all aware by now that John Egbunu won’t be a member of this year’s team, but instead of continuing to cry about it, the Gators can use this weekend to finally do something about it. And by something, I mean do as much as possible to develop Gorjok Gak and Kevarrius Hayes.

It’s pretty clear that neither Gak nor Hayes are Egbunu, but that doesn’t mean they can’t spell him at times. Neither are particularly dominant on the score sheet, but Hayes does suck in a lot of rebounds and Gak has come along in that respect too, even though he still sometimes lets uncontested rebounds slip through his hands and out of bounds. But this week needs to be a crash course for them, because the Gators can’t be trusted on to win games without at least a semblance of an interior presence.

If nothing else, White has to use his big men to lure opponents into foul trouble. I would prefer Hayes and Gak to be getting the ball on the elbow, working their way in closer and then hitting hook shots, but that’s not likely to become a part of either of their games at this point. If these two big guys can just get a few touches and score on them, opponents will have to respect them- which will create more room to shoot from the outside.

I really can’t bring myself to care if Florida loses in the first round on Friday night. I’d rather see them lose and play the right way than win by jacking up ridiculous threes that go in, because that’s not sustainable. To win a national championship, you need to go on a six game winning streak, and though this team hasn’t matched its lofty expectations from the preseason thus far, they’re still going to make the NCAA Tournament and fulfill the prerequisite for doing so. Therefore, it’s by no means farfetched to keep talking about that as a possibility, and in fact it should be the goal.

So as the Gators get ready for their final tune-ups before the games that matter most, they need to keep in mind that they ultimately won’t be remembered for what they do this week, but in the weeks that follow. And working on their weaknesses this week may increase the chances of them being remembered fondly for what they do in the weeks to come.

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