Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Florida (#1)

Florida offense

In a time of desperation, Mike White *may* be discovering what made him attractive in the first place

For his entire tenure at Louisiana Tech and for the first two years at Florida, Mike White oversaw something that I would legitimately call “fun.” I’m being completely serious! No, check your sanity level! At Louisiana Tech, White ran an offense that looked to break out in transition at any point of the game, with a particular zeal for using defense to create offense:

We’ll get to this more in the defensive section, but White’s Louisiana Tech teams used a high-pressure full-court press and crazed half-court system to force a ton of turnovers and turn it into easy offense. Even outside of that, they were in the upper 20% or so in terms of teams getting shots in the first 10 seconds after a rebound. They played fast, fun basketball, and it’s what got him hired at Florida.

For about 2.5 seasons, White kept that same system, and it was undeniably successful. White still hasn’t had an offense rank higher than 25th, has only had one offense rank higher than 95th in eFG%, and his defense has been better than his offense in all but two seasons of nine. Even so, it was hard to not get a little jealous of how easy Florida made it look at times. White got to the Elite Eight in just his second season by pleading with his team to push the ball up-court quickly as often as possible. It worked, to the tune of White’s best offense in his career:

And then, out of nowhere, it just…stopped. In 2017-18, White almost entirely stopped running his full-court press, and Florida games began to slow to a crawl. In 2016-17, 13 of Florida’s 18 SEC games cracked the 70-possession mark. 12 of those were in regulation. In the three seasons after, nine games cracked that same mark in regulation. Florida became a boring, stodgy offense without a ton of game-to-game life in it.

This year, after the sad and sudden departure of Keyontae Johnson from the team, things may be changing. Florida currently offers the fastest Average Possession Length (16 seconds, 55th-highest) of White’s entire career, and for once, the offense is the (slightly) superior unit. While we all expected Johnson to lead the way heading into 2021, a very surprising figure has risen out of pretty much nowhere to be the team’s star: 6’11” center Colin Castleton.

(In my “Sy Ableman?!?” voice) Colin Castleton?!?

At a time when Florida has needed him most, Castleton has delivered, and I really can say I didn’t see this one coming. My dad is a Michigan alumnus, so I try to watch as many of their games as I can. (Father-son connections, you know the drill.) At no point during Castleton’s two-year run at Michigan did he resemble much more than a one-day competent starting center. Never did I think he’d be the main option for a potential NCAA Tournament team:

Without Johnson, there wasn’t really an obvious option on the Florida roster to fill the hole of Player That Actually Strikes Fear in an Opponent’s Heart. Castleton has somehow taken this role. He’s done a fantastic job in rim protection defensively – we’ll get to that shortly – and has quietly been a bit of a terror on the offensive boards.

Watch for Mann and Appleby, too

Florida will use him as the screener in the vast majority of their ball-screen sets, which White has never been all that high on using, but Castleton is a pretty serious threat in those, too. In those sets, you’ll mainly see Tre Mann and Tyree Appleby as the ball-handlers. Mann is a bit more successful here, so we’ll talk about him first:

Mann ranks second on the team with 17 made threes on 42 attempts (40.5%) and is essentially always a threat to pull up. I can’t claim that he’s a terrific passer, necessarily, but he’s probably the best Florida has and is at least acceptable at his job. In a very Mike White thing to happen, Florida has a ton of fruitless isolation possessions; 14.5% of all Florida possessions involve an iso (easily the highest rate in the SEC), and Mann is the worst offender by far. I guess I don’t understand what world this shot would be needed in?

If Florida deleted half of their ISO possessions, I think they’d genuinely be a better offense on the whole. For isolation play to work, you need the ball to be in the hands of an exceptional shot creator and/or scorer; Mann isn’t really either, and the guy on this team that would be the exceptional shot creator/scorer isn’t available this season.

Next to Mann is Tyree Appleby, who’s stepped up his game significantly in conference play:

Appleby is a bizarrely great shooter off the dribble, though it’s probably just small sample size theater. Regardless, you’re looking at a player that’s always happy to have the ball in his hands, both outside and at the basket. Appleby’s particularly good at getting to the rim and drawing contact:

Tennessee’s got to avoid getting in foul trouble if they’d like to win, of course.

Two extra things: Scottie Lewis’s availability and turnovers

Lastly, it would help a lot if Scottie Lewis is available. (UPDATE 9:35 AM: Jon Rothstein just announced he’s out.) After luck and schedule adjustments, Florida’s offense is about 8.2 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The shot selection is…much improved.

While this is obviously not the same Florida team as the one that woke up the morning of December 12th, they’re pretty plucky and have already beaten a pair of top 60 teams in conference play. They’ve also lost to #55 and #69 on KenPom because they’ve lost the turnover battle in five of the last seven games:

But, hey, fits and starts. Not like it’s Year 6 of Mike White or anything. 

Here’s a quick scout of the Florida rotation; only players getting at least 10 minutes per game in SEC play are considered. Positions in parentheses are from Bart Torvik’s algorithm. The top five players are the assumed starters.

  • #1 Tre Mann (combo G). Florida’s closest thing to a point guard, but…well, not really. Mann can score at all three levels and is a surprisingly good rebounder for his size, but hasn’t done a great job of finishing at the rim and has a lot of bad possessions in isolation.
  • #10 Noah Locke (combo G). You remember this guy. Locke is the roster’s three-point specialist, sitting at a 41.2% hit rate on 51 attempts this year and 40.3% on 447 for his career. Under no circumstances can you leave him open…unless he’s inside the three-point arc.
  • Either #23 Scottie Lewis (wing G)…
  • …or #22 Tyree Appleby (combo G). Lewis is the superior player and traditionally a starter, but Florida’s mum on his availability after missing the last two games due to COVID protocols. (UPDATE 9:35 AM: Jon Rothstein just announced he’s out.) A fantastic foul-drawer of a player, and Florida’s offense is quite a bit better with him on the court. Appleby, meanwhile, likes to shoot from anywhere and is very happy to have the ball in his hands.
  • #4 Anthony Duruji (stretch 4). Lowest-rated starter, but there’s no clear replacement beyond going to a true four-guard + Castleton lineup. That’s what I would do, but I don’t get paid very much money. Duruji is a bad shooter whose main attribute is rarely turning the ball over.
  • #12 Colin Castleton (center). The best player on the team, the best rim protector, the lone efficient scorer. Can’t get enough Castleton! He’s also the biggest threat on the offensive boards and has a very low turnover rate for a center. A smart basketball player, especially in the post; Tennessee needs to keep the ball out of his hands.
  • #5 Omar Payne (center). Very rarely shoots, never takes threes. 4-out, 1-in, and he’s the one in.

NEXT PAGE: “Recruiting was…..good”

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