What to watch for in the Gators’ home opener against CSU

Freshman guard Andrew Nembhard shot 50 percent from the field (4-of-8) in Tuesday’s 81-60 loss to FSU.

Some things are best left in the past.

Florida’s 81-60 loss to in-state rival FSU Tuesday night is no exception. The 21-point margin of victory made the game look more competitive than it actually was, as UF trailed by as much as 30 late in the second half.

But the rigorous nature of the Gators’ non-conference schedule leaves the team little time to dwell on the embarrassment brought on at the hands of the Seminoles. Florida has two tune-up games against mid-major opponents before traveling to Paradise Island, Bahamas, for the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving week, where it could potentially face No. 5 Virginia.

Here are a few key areas to keep an eye on when the Gators take on Charleston Southern at the O’Connell Center tonight at 7.

 

Ball movement

Florida (0-1) struggled to create space against FSU. The Gators only had nine assists as a team. Four of those came from true freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard, who got the starting nod over sophomore Mike Okauru. Only one other UF player, senior guard KeVaughn Allen, recorded multiple assists (2).

“I’d like to see much better shot selection,” he said. “I would like to see much better connectivity amongst our players.”

Allen has shown moments of greatness while wearing a Gators uniform but has a tendency to fade into the background. This was on full display against FSU when he was held scoreless.

That wasn’t entirely on him, though, and coach Mike White said as much.

“He didn’t get many open looks, and we’ve got to try to help him with that,” he said.

No one stood out on the stat sheet for Florida. Deaundrae Ballard led the team in scoring, coming off the bench with 13 points.

The Gators never figured out how to get open against Florida State’s quick and aggressive defense. UF is extremely reliant on sharpshooting, and getting the ball to its playmakers with high-percentage looks will be a primary focus as the Gators try to bounce back.

 

Defending CSU’s talented forwards

The Buccaneers (1-0) may be coming off a 15-16 season in the generally one-bid Big South, but a couple members of the CSU frontcourt impressed in the 100-68 season-opening win against NAIA Columbia International.

Forwards Duncan LeXander and Travis McConico led Charleston Southern in scoring, notching 17 points each. Both shot on the right side of 50 percent, and McConico was five of nine behind the three-point line.

Granted, their opponent was picked during the preseason to finish second to last in the non-NCAA Appalachian Athletic Conference.

Against FSU on Tuesday, the Seminoles’ P.J. Savoy and Trent Forrest scored at will against the Gators, combining for 33 points.

If UF allows similar performances from LeXander and McConico, the Bucs could hang around longer than the Gainesville crowd might hope.

 

Freshmen Frenzy

White made it very clear in the FSU game that he believes his freshmen can be difference-makers. Former five-star recruit Nembhard scored 12 points and played the most minutes of any Florida player (34), while guard Noah Locke and forward Keyontae Johnson played 13 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively.

Disappointing performances from seniors like Allen and Kevarrius Hayes could boost those minutes, especially in a game UF expects to win handily.

White said on Thursday that, outside of Hayes, no one stepped up as a leader on the court against FSU. He didn’t rule out any of the freshmen from taking that role.

“I think it’s possible and probably needed,” he said.

The Gators’ entire starting five is comprised of upperclassmen other than Nembhard, but with Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov on the team last year, they weren’t needed as leaders. Allen and forward Keith Stone have made strides in that role but are notoriously quiet.

White said that he doesn’t want to put too much on the young players’ plates too early. But if those veterans don’t find their voices soon, he may look to the rookies for leadership intangibles.

“I think a couple of our freshmen have that in them,” White said. “At some point, I might come to a decision where we encourage that more and more as a staff.”

 

Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at [email protected].

Tyler Nettuno is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida men's basketball team. He has previously covered UF golf and lacrosse. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.