Improvements must come quickly for Florida team dealing with losing streak
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Mike White walked through the basketball facility Thursday carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and an ink pen in the other.
Given how the fifth-ranked Gators have played recently, the need for both was obvious: Late nights ahead and new ideas to draw up.
Florida (5-3) has lost three consecutive games, including two in three days to unranked opponents at home. It’s a significant slide that has White reassessing everything about his seemingly overrated team.
“None of it’s been shocking,” White said. “We’re just a very average defensive and rebounding team, and when we’re not making shots, it’s hard to beat anybody.”
If the Gators don’t end their losing streak Saturday against No. 17 Cincinnati in New Jersey, they almost certainly will become the second team this season to fall out of The Associated Press Top 25 in a week after a top-five ranking. Then-No. 2 Arizona did it last month.
“We can’t panic,” White said.
Definitely not, but White also rattled off a list of improvements the Gators need to make quickly:
Fewer mental mistakes on both ends. More drives in hopes of getting to the free-throw line. Faster pace of play. Improved perimeter defense. Heightened awareness in regards to help defense.
At the top of the list: Better shot selection.
Florida made 16 of 64 shots (25 percent) from 3-point range during the three-game slide, including a 2-of-19 performance in a 65-59 loss to Loyola-Chicago on Wednesday night.
Egor Koulechov, a graduate transfer from Rice who was lighting it up three weeks ago, has missed 15 of his last 18 shots from behind the arc.
“No way I saw this coming,” White said. “We’ve tried to hammer the point home, especially in the past 48 hours: `Let’s make sure your first shot is a really good one.'”
Florida’s tailspin started in Portland, Oregon, on Nov. 26. The Gators led top-ranked Duke by 17 points with 10 minutes remaining when defensive lapses and missed shots became the norm.
The Blue Devils rallied for a three-point victory, and White’s team hasn’t been the same since.
The Gators delivered a lackluster effort in a 17-point loss to rival Florida State on Monday, a performance White called “the epitome of soft.” Players, coaches and fans expected a rebound performance against Loyola-Chicago two nights later.
Instead, it was more of the same even though the effort was much improved.
“Just going up from here,” forward Keith Stone said. “We have to go into practice with a better mindset, be positive and learn from this. We didn’t come out with no energy, no nothing.”
Florida has defensive help on the way, but senior center John Egbunu won’t be ready to return from a torn knee ligament for at least another month. And there is no guarantee Egbunu will be back to normal after taking nearly a year off.
“Making shots masks a lot of stuff,” White said. “Maybe our guys didn’t wholeheartedly believe when we’re scoring over 100 and we’re giving up 100 that we’re not actually playing to our capability. Maybe our guys were a little bit overly comfortable with that.”
White hopes his guys will now understand that there are other ways to atone for misses, like rebounding, playing defense and getting loose balls.
“What I’m trying to hammer home is we could have won the game and gone 0-for-19 if we fix these other things,” he said, noting his team’s confidence and body language have to improve even if shooting doesn’t. “You make your first five shots Saturday, I bet we look differently.
“We have to get in the gym. We have to take better shots. We have to help each other get open. If we start out 0 for 5, we have to have more mental toughness to be able to make sure we continue to keep taking good ones and continue to have confidence in ourselves. We’ve proven we can shoot at a high level, and it’s right there in front of us. Step up and make shots.”