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Thursday, October 28, 2021
<p>Keyontae Johnson</p>

Keyontae Johnson

The Florida men’s basketball team has reached a fork in the road.

On Jan. 18, it looked like the Gators were starting to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. UF thrashed then-No. 4 Auburn to earn a marquee win that capped off a 5-1 record during that six-game period.

Then, this rollercoaster ride of a season took another drastic dip.

The Gators’ heartbreaking defeat in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, spiraled into back-to-back home losses to No. 1 Baylor and Mississippi State.

Now, as the SEC schedule nears its halfway point, how Florida performs during the upcoming five-game trek will play a big role in determining where this team ends up when postseason play nears.

According to KenPom, the only team Florida faces that’s currently ranked in the top 100 over the next five games is Georgia at 98. Ole Miss (116), Texas A&M (154) and Vanderbilt (180) are the weakest opponents left on Florida’s schedule. Will UF take advantage? We’ll find out on Saturday when the Gators (12-8, 4-3 SEC) begin their pivotal stretch against Vanderbilt (8-12, 0-7 SEC) in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s time for UF’s defense to step up

Since coach Mike White took over in 2015, it’s been clear which side of the ball he focuses more of his attention toward.

According to KenPom, Florida has been ranked 14th, fifth, 24th and 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency during White’s first four seasons.

This year though, the defense hasn’t performed at that same level.

Currently, UF ranks 71st in adjusted defensive efficiency. There’s time for the defense to get back to that top-tier level, but at this point, White’s still searching for more from his squad.

“Our level of pride, defensively, is different than any other team I’ve had,” White said after Tuesday’s game. “Our numbers are not very pretty, and they’re getting uglier everyday...We made common mistakes today that don’t allow for success against high-level teams.”

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Against Vanderbilt, Florida will need to hone in on the three-point line. The Commodores are fourth in the SEC in three-point percentage at 32.9 percent, averaging a little over eight three-pointers per contest.

On the perimeter, the Gators will try to slow down Vandy guards Saban Lee and Scotty Pippen Jr., who average 16.2 and 11.1 points per game, respectively.

Although Vanderbilt has some dangerous guard play, that hasn’t translated onto the scoreboard over the last few weeks.

In its last six games, the Commodores have only averaged 56.3 points per contest.

UF has a huge opportunity to gain some much-needed confidence on the defensive side of the ball on Saturday.

Can Mann and Lewis add some consistency to their game?

Tuesday night’s game showcased what can happen if freshmen guards Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis play well.

In the first half, the two combined for 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting. That performance helped the Gators mount a 16-point lead against Mississippi State.

Florida looked like a well-oiled machine on offense, and the team in transition looked the best it had arguably all season.

Then, the second half brought a completely different vibe. UF shot just 29.6 percent from the field in the second half of the game and the freshmen tandem suffered along with the rest of the team. Lewis and Mann shot 1 of 6 and had four points total after a promising start to the game.

“Mental lapses and lapses in focus, that’s something that we can fix,” Lewis said, referring to the second-half performance against Mississippi State. “Because when we’re 100 percent focused at all points of the game, we are pretty dangerous.”

Follow Evan on Twitter @evanmplepak and contact him at elepak@alligator.org.

Keyontae Johnson

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