Three games into conference play, the Florida men’s basketball team’s identity is beginning to take shape.
A home victory over Vanderbilt along with two road wins against then-No. 11 Texas A&M and Missouri have shown coach Mike White that the Gators (11-4, 3-0 SEC) have leaders who can help the team sustain its undefeated start to SEC competition.
Senior point guard Chris Chiozza continues to blossom in crucial game situations, showcasing his clutch play with a game-winning steal and layup to give UF a 77-75 lead over Missouri with 0.1 seconds left on Saturday afternoon.
“I think he’s one of the most underrated guys in the country,” White said on Thursday. “From a toughness standpoint, from an accountability and dependability standpoint, he’s just in a good rhythm.”
Playing at least 32 minutes in each of the team’s first three SEC contests, Chiozza has averaged 14 points and six assists, both slightly above his season averages.
Defensively, the senior continues to create havoc in opponent passing lanes. He has totaled five steals in conference play, including matching his season high with four against the Aggies.
Chiozza isn’t the only veteran to elevate his game.
Junior forward Kevarrius Hayes continued his strong play on Saturday against Missouri, scoring in double figures for the first time this season with 10 points to go along with five offensive rebounds.
The Gators are asking a lot of Hayes defensively in the absence of injured big men John Egbunu, Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson.
Hayes has patrolled the paint well, swatting away 10 shots through the team’s first three conference matchups and creating uncomfortable looks inside for opposing players.
“He’s not a guy that’s going to move bodies,” White said after Hayes’ eight-point, five-block performance against Texas A&M on Tuesday. “But to do his best and hold his own against elite length and elite girth… he gave everything he had.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone showed growth as a scorer and defender at the other forward spot as well. After a career-high 18 points versus Texas A&M, Stone showed offensive consistency with a 13-point outing against the Tigers.
Stone projects as a stretch four who can spread defenders out with his perimeter shot. Six made jumpers from beyond the arc over the past two games has Stone’s three-point shooting percentage at a solid 53.1 percent.
“It’s what we’ve seen in practice for a long time,” White said. “And we were really ready for him to break out for a long time… It was no surprise to our staff or his teammates.”
Chiozza, Hayes and Stone – all players who have been with White through his three seasons at Florida – are growing under added pressure and important game situations.
The veterans’ play will determine the potential of the team as SEC play continues, especially until the return of UF’s injured players.
“We’re in a decent rhythm right now,” White said. “It’s about who plays well and who’s getting more minutes and who’s getting better and sometimes, who finishes games.”