SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- After a lengthy delay following Jim Boeheim's unexpected mea culpa in the wake of the latest Bernie Fine developments, Billy Donovan strode to the podium in the Carrier Dome last Friday and took questions from a handful of reporters. He spent nine minutes or so dissecting his Gators' efforts in a 72-68 loss to the Syracuse Orange, but really no matter what he said, it was going to be subjugated by the evening's bigger theme.
And really, that was a microcosm of this cold, dark night spent by the Gators in central New York. Battling 25,000 partisans and the foreign Syracuse zone without Erik Murphy (due to injury) and, for a long period, without center Patric Young (due to foul trouble), the fun-size Gators fought to the end, but the result -- a second road defeat to a top-five team already this season -- means a lot less than the measurement of Florida's evolution as a team.
Coming off a heartbreaking Elite Eight loss to Butler last season, Florida is radically remaking itself, with superfrosh wing Bradley Beal and Rutgers transfer shooting guard Mike Rosario (along with reserve forward Will Yeguete) effectively replacing departed bigs Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus in the rotation. Gone, too, appears to be the offensive approach from last season, where Florida took almost 70 percent of its field goal attempts from two-point range. Now with five shooters in their primary seven-man rotation, the Gators have thus far been one of the nation's most three-point-dependent teams, taking 43.5 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Of their top six shot-takers, only Young has taken fewer threes than twos. Everyone else is letting it fly.
"The way we play, we want to pass and move the ball and have a presence in the paint, but if we get open threes, coach encourages us to take them," senior guard Erving Walker said after the game. "We have good shooters and as a team, we've shot it well the whole year. We have to continue to make sure we don't forget about the paint, but if we have open threes, we have to take them."
That hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. The Gators had made at least 10 threes in each of their first six games before settling for nine (on 26 attempts) against the Orange, and the team's primary gunner -- Kenny Boynton, at a 26.8 percent shot rate -- has knocked down over 47 percent of his long-range attempts, per kenpom.com. The Gators, as a team, currently have the nation's top offensive efficiency, at 1.19 points per possession.
So the question is not why couldn't the Gators win on this specific night, but whether they are playing a style that could allow them to win this same caliber of game down the road. Simply put, is this version of BillyBall sustainable? Talented or not, personnel available or not, the early implication is no, it is not.
From an individual standpoint, all three of Florida's main guards -- Walker, Boynton and Rosario -- are currently performing at a level of efficiency (for their possession usage) that would have landed them in the nation's top six players at the end of last season. Most notably, third-year man Boynton is operating at a rate just below that of where Kemba Walker was in December last season. Kemba eventually tailed off to merely very good, but that shift represented a drop of more than 20 efficiency points from his peak. Boynton currently is shooting more than 15 percent above his career average from the arc. While he did improve down the stretch last season after almost two years of very mediocre marksmanship, the safe assumption is that he will come back closer to his normal level. So, too, may Rosario, who in his 18 minutes per game is also about 15 points above his two seasons at Rutgers, where he jacked up a slew of questionable shots on bad teams.
Similar regression may happen to the team as a whole. A large percentage of three-pointers -- especially successful ones -- come off catch-and-shoot situations. Per kenpom.com, there are currently six teams that have been ranked at some point this season that are taking 40-plus percent of their shots from behind the arc. All have fairly similar catch-and-shoot possession rates, but the right column in the table below shows the variance in the quality of the shots being taken in those situations (percentages from Synergy Sports):
Basically, Florida has taken a lot of difficult jump shots and, so far, is making a high percentage of them (helping them convert almost 42 percent overall from the three as a team). Those competing trends can't reasonably continue, so the Gators will have to adjust their offense (Murphy's reintroduction and more 1-in, 4-out sets may lead to more driving lanes, plus provide Young more frequent one-on-one coverage on the block) or they likely will start clanking more jumpers and the team's efficiency will drop.
Digging a bit deeper, the following chart shows the Gators' four leading shooters, how many possessions they have used so far and how they fare in catch-and-shoot situations:
Beal has really struggled in this category and Boynton, surprisingly, has been poor, as well. Given his overall success rate from the arc, these numbers seem to imply that Boynton's making a large percentage of his threes off the dribble -- which adds to the belief that he cannot sustain his current level of success. Anecdotally, from the Syracuse game, that was the case. He created and made several very high-difficulty threes to help keep Florida in the game before running out of magic down the stretch.
After the game, Donovan said he thought the Gators had been more patient offensively than they had been against Ohio State (as well as better defensively), and empirically, that seemed true. Boynton focused principally on the turnovers that have hurt Florida in both of its marquee matchups this season, as well as the rebounding issues caused by the small lineup against the Orange. Having Murphy back -- he missed a significant chunk of the Ohio State game, as well -- should help in both of those areas, too, but whether he will over time cause a significant enough shift in offensive approach is to be seen.
Seven games into a campaign is far too early to draw any concrete conclusions about a team and its style of play, but what Florida has served up thus far -- whether against Stetson or Syracuse -- seems like a short-term salve rather than season-long salvation. The Gators certainly have the talent to make it to New Orleans, but they're probably going to have to find a slightly different route by which to get there.