GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida basketball coach Mike White has no interest in talking about the standings, especially when his team is sitting atop the SEC just a few games into conference play.
But he’ll gladly discuss why he feels the Gators (11-4, 3-0) are one of just two teams still unbeaten in league play as they prepare to host Mississippi State (13-2, 1-1) on Wednesday night inside Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
“[We’ve found] more so of an identity offensively. We’re not there full yet, but I think we have a better understanding of who operates where. … Which spots certain individuals do damage from, when to throw it inside, when to shoot a 3, when to make the extra pass. Just a better rhythm, I think,” White said.
“And also the experience of being on the short end of the stick a couple of those games was probably educational for our guys that anything can happen. Just stay focused on that next possession, whether it’s offense or defense, and just keep plugging away if you’re down. Like Duke did to us. Like Clemson did to us. It was nice to come [away] with one of those.”
He was referring to Florida’s 77-75 road win at Missouri on Saturday in a game in which the Gators twice erased double-digit deficits.
His team has now rattled off five straight wins overall while averaging 80.3 points over three games since the holiday break — not quite the high-scoring levels to which the Gators played in the opening weeks of the season, but certainly better than they showed during their December lull.
After a 5-0 start and a narrow loss then-No. 1 Duke, Florida followed with three more losses over its next four games — an ugly one to Florida State, a stunning one to Loyola-Chicago and one that got away against Clemson.
“As the season goes on, you learn that we’re not where we were in November, December, January. And you just want to peak at the right time,” guard Egor Koulechov said. “We hope we continue moving forward and getting better as February and March goes on.”
Florida vs. Mississippi State
When | 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where | Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center, Gainesville
TV channel | SEC Network with Roy Philpott on the play-by-play call and Brooke Weisbrod as the analyst
How to watch online | The game can be streamed on WatchESPN
Koulechov settling back into a groove has helped. The grad transfer is averaging 18.7 points so far in SEC play.
Leading scorer Jalen Hudson managed to produce despite playing through a virus, and he continued to come off the bench Saturday while delivering 16 points in 27 minutes at Missouri.
Senior point guard Chris Chiozza, whose status was up in the air for Wednesday night due to a bout of strep throat, has become an alpha on the court while scoring in double figures in seven straight games and taking over in important moments (like the steal and game-winning layup Saturday).
And Florida’s front court players have found a rhythm with Kevarrius Hayes being asked to post up more and return to a more comfortable role than he was playing earlier in the season, and Keith Stone emerging with 15.5 PPG over the last two contests.
White knows his team is not at peak potential yet, though. Not with junior guard KeVaughn Allen, a preseason All-SEC pick, struggling. And not until senior center John Egbunu returns sometime later this month or next from his ACL recovery to provide the Gators the true interior presence they lack.
But it looks to be coming together.
“We’ve found more of an offensive rhythm. We’ve gained some offensive confidence back. Been more efficient offensively. Really valuing the basketball. Taking good shots. And then the resiliency,” White said, circling back to that gritty win over Missouri. “I didn’t even know the level of resiliency we played with, didn’t fully embrace the level of resiliency until I watched the film. I had forgotten some of the daggers that they hit. That was a game when we had several opportunities to put our heads down and say, ‘This is just not our day.’ …
“We have had a couple games stolen from us, where we didn’t make the plays down the stretch. So it’s nice to be on the other end of one.”
Said Koulechov: “I know we’re not satisfied. We know we need to keep working, not let it get to our heads. Keep doing what we do.”
Scouting Mississippi State
The Bulldogs have a great record, but that was mostly built through a very light non-conference schedule where they lost to the only ranked team they faced (65-50 to Cincinnati).
After opening SEC play with a solid 78-75 win at then-No. 22 Arkansas, Mississippi State lost 64-58 at Ole Miss on Saturday.
The team is led by guards Quinndary Weatherspoon (14.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG) and freshman brother Nick Weatherspoon (11.3 PPG), along with 6-foot-10 forward Aric Holman (12.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG).
The Bulldogs rank tied for 21st nationally in scoring defense, giving up 63.5 points per game, but again that’s helped by the weak non-conference schedule.
White’s breakdown: “They’re really sound, they’re solid. They [have] great length at the four and the five. I mean, great length. As long a team as we’ll see all year. Their speed and quickness on the perimeter is probably as good as there is, as good as we’ll see this year. When you consider the Weatherspoons, and [guards Tyson] Carter and Lamar Peters, those are some fast guys. And Quinndary Weatherspoon is not only fast and strong, but he’s got great length too on the perimeter as a big guard, so they’re very good defensively. And then offensively, Holman’s ability to stretch the defense is big. He can really, really shoot it, and [they have] a bunch of guards who can really go get it off the bounce, again with tremendous speed and quickness. They’re very, very good, I mean they’re 13-2, they’re a different team than they were a year ago.”