GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Ten of Florida’s first 11 basketball games this season are in the state, but none are in Gainesville.
That’s the challenge the Gators face in the early going while the O’Connell Center remains under renovation, as they’ll play their early “home” games in Jacksonville, Lakeland and Sunrise in addition to Advocare Invitational matchups in Tampa and Orlando and a true in-state road game in Tallahassee.
Florida is expected to make its debut in the O’Connell Center on Dec. 21 against Little Rock if everything stays on track with the renovation.
Gators coach Mike White doesn’t want the extra early season travel to be an excuse for his team.
“We can sit here and complain about having to play on the road. I’m pretty happy we get to play on the road in the fall because that means we’re about to move into a beautiful facility,” White said. “Also, it gives you advantages, opportunities to grow, to become more cohesive as we’re traveling and coming together. Road wins are hard to come by away from home. Hopefully, these experiences will pay off in conference play and help you become a little better road team.”
Florida is wrapping up a $64.5 million renovation project to what will be known as Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center that commenced in March.
The Gators are 260-40 in the arena since the 1998-99 season.
“I know when we get back in the O-Dome, that place will be rocking, and it will be a significant home-court advantage for us,” White said.
In assessing the lessons he took from his first season in Gainesville, White realized he needed to give his players more rest as the season went along — especially if he wants to play the style he feels best suits the team.
White wants his Gators pushing the tempo on offense as they did at times last season, but he feels the team went away from that for too long a stretch.
“We’d like to play in a perfect world in a similar style to the way we finished last year. We picked the tempo back up,” he said. “Again, I’ve been open about this — I kind of regret not having played that way more consistently throughout the year last year. I think it helps us play to our strengths. I think it’s advantageous to us to play pretty fast, yet there is that fine line between playing fast and taking crazy shots. So, we’ve got to be cognizant of what’s a good shot for which guy, where on the court and when on the shot clock, things like that.
“But defensively and offensively we do want to play pressure basketball. We do want to promote tempo.”
Senior point guard Kasey Hill said that takes a toll on guys in practice, but he sees how it benefits the Gators in games.
“I love coach White’s tempo,” he said. “It’s not so fun in practice because we’re really tired, but it definitely pays off once we get to game time.”
Lofty goals for D, hopes for better shooting
Meanwhile, White has set a high bar for his team defensively this season — rank in the top 10 in the nation in defense.
“I don’t think there’s any reason we should shoot for being less than that,” White said.
Last season, Florida ranked 98th nationally in allowing 68.9 points per game, whereas the top 10 teams gave up an average of 63.1 points or fewer. So, it’s not as drastic a jump as it may seem.
One reason White is hoping the Gators can excel at shutting down opponents is because their offense still has plenty of flaws.
Florida shot 42.6 percent from the field as a team (242nd in the country), 31.9 percent from 3-point range (290th) and 64.7 percent from the foul line (323rd) in 2015-16.
White is realistic and doesn’t see that swinging all the way to the other end of the spectrum, though he does hope the Gators show improvement.
“I just don’t think we’re going to make a huge jump in either area (3-point and free-throw shooting). I can’t sit here and tell you we’re going to go from one of the last place 3-point shooting teams (13th) in our league. … I know we were 14th (actually 12th) at the foul line, and I don’t think we’re going to jump to first,” he said. “But I think we can make a pretty good jump in both areas. I’d be surprised if we weren’t a little closer toward the middle of the pack.”