Something has clicked for Florida, and not even the injury to one of its important players can derail whatâs becoming one of the most impressive runs in a major conference this season. The Gators enter Rupp Arena on Saturday (2 p.m., CBS) with a chance to sweep Kentucky in the regular season for the first time since 2014 and only the second time since John Calipari arrived in Lexington.
Florida totally dominated the Wildcats earlier this season with 22-point win in Gainesville, one of nine victories in the teamâs current winning streak. The streak has the Gators tied with Kentucky for first place in the SEC at 13-2, making Saturdayâs game the likely tipping point for the SEC regular season crown and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
It was after winning seven games in a row that Florida faced its most unpredictable obstacle: the loss of junior center John Egbunu. With Egbunu out for the rest of the year with a torn ACL, Mike White has been forced to call on young talent to step up now as the team fights to extend this streak of success and carry it into the NCAA Tournament.
Florida has found its rhythm thanks to stellar play on the defensive end. KenPom has the Gators at No. 4 nationally in defensive efficiency, and it comes from this versatile and athletic team buying into Whiteâs vision. They do a tremendous job of forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets off those opportunities, which help boost equally impressive scoring numbers (79.6 points per game, the highest Florida average since the 2007 back-to-back title team).
âLast year was rough,â. âIt was the first year we were all trying to get to know each other, click and stuff. But now we understand what [White] expects for us and what he wants us to do. We understand it and weâre just bought in now. We put our egos to the side and know that thereâs bigger goals for us.â
The injury bug
After Egbunu was ruled out for the rest of the year, the players were âshookâ for a few practices but rallied for a hard-fought win at Mississippi State in Starkville. But thatâs only the biggest headline, injury-wise, for the Gators. There are others.
Canyon Barry, one of the teamâs best offensive weapons in conference play, has also been nursing an ankle injury that kept him limited to just nine minutes against South Carolina. Freshman forward Keith Stone has been dealing with a viral illness and is just getting back into the swing of things, and the school announced earlier this month that 6-foor-11 freshman Gorjok Gak suffered a foot sprain that will keep him sidelined for a while.
Egbunu is a unique defender, great shot blocker and a fantastic communicator from the âanchorâ position of Floridaâs defense. His absence is felt in all aspects of the game, and itâs put sophomore Kavarrius Hayes into a key role. Hayes, at 6-9, is the X-factor for Florida in maintaining that high level of play down low.
The Mike White effect
Digging into Floridaâs 2017 success keeps leading back to the same themes: trust, culture and Mike White.
Floridaâs hire of the Louisiana Tech coach is looking better every day. When White was hired, he was coming off three straight regular-season championships (1 WAC, 2 Conference USA) but had no NCAA Tournament appearances. In each of those seasons the Bulldogs never lost more than three conference games in the regular season but lost in the conference tournament.
White and his staff have been to the NIT four years in a row. They had a vision for what success at Florida could look like, and even the rest of the SECâs coaches canât help but compliment the work theyâve done with this Gators team.
âMike has them playing through his eyes now,â South Carolina coach. âThat last year was obviously he was trying to get guys to see what he sees. That is definitely happening right now. Mikeâs got those guys playing through his eyes right now.
âTheyâre a real good basketball team. They havenât won whatever theyâve won by mistake. Theyâre a real good basketball team. Theyâre very unselfish on offense.â
White may have already locked up SEC Coach of the Year, but if Florida can win the SEC youâre going to start hearing his name in the mix for national honors as well.
Floridaâs ceiling in 2017
As it stands right now, Floridaâs probably staring down a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, no higher than a 2 and probably no lower than a 4. With five top-50 RPI wins and zero sub-50 RPI losses, the Gators have a sterling resume that should keep them in a favorable spot on Selection Sunday.
Prior to the season, expectations for the Gators in 2017 were mostly tied to making the NCAA Tournament and being competitive in the SEC. The roster seemed like a sum of its parts more than a unit on paper, and there was no way to predict how the group would gel in year two under White. But everything is clicking now, and the only bar left to clear is proven success in the NCAA Tournament.
Kasey Hill is the last remaining piece of that 2014 Final Four team. Chris Chiozza and Devin Robinson have a ton of on-court experience but have never been in an NCAA Tournament situation. Heck, even getting to the big dance will be a huge moment for White and his staff after four straight appearances in the NIT between Florida and Louisiana Tech. What Florida has accomplished over the last nine games should make them worthy of the Final Four discussion, but thereâs a lot of work left to be done.
That starts Saturday in Rupp Arena against Kentucky, fighting for the first regular season sweep of the Wildcats since that 2014 season.