University of Florida

UF has the nation’s best offense. But the Gators want to be known for something else.

Florida guard Jalen Hudson shoots during the second half of the Gators game in the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Oregon on Nov. 24.
Florida guard Jalen Hudson shoots during the second half of the Gators game in the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Oregon on Nov. 24. AP

Jalen Hudson can expect a message every day. Sometimes he’ll get one from his mom, or maybe a teammate, but he knows one is coming from assistant coach Darris Nichols.

The message contains clips of Hudson, a junior guard on Florida’s basketball team, playing defense. It’s supposed to help him improve on that side of the ball when he’s known more for offense. As is his team.

Six games into its season, Florida leads the nation in scoring with a 99.5 points-per-game average. It’s also scored in triple digits in four of those six games. But the team doesn’t want to be known for prolific offense, even if it has the potential to lead the league in scoring. It wants to be known for ferocious defense. And Hudson, the team’s leading scorer at 21.7 points per game, wants to lead that effort.

“I’ve just been focusing on myself,” he said. “Staying in stance, actually guarding. And then obviously it’s a team sport, so you’ve gotta make sure you’re helping others as well.”

Coach Mike White agrees, noting that the team’s defense hasn’t been as good as it needs to be.

“We’re a talented offensive group for sure,” he said. “Our skill level is what was expected. And then we’re about where we thought we were defensively, and that’s not good enough.”

While the team’s offense is leading the nation, its defense ranks 306th with an average of 80.7 points surrendered per game. Improving that number, White said, revolves around the play of post players Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak. Hayes, a 6-9, 225-pound junior, is the team’s main center but has struggled with some undisclosed off-the-court issues so far this year and, as a result, has had to sit out some spurts. But White said he’s not worry about Hayes’ off-court concerns in the long run. He’s more worried about getting him to play fiercer defense.

“I’m not so much worried about him off the floor as I am him getting back to the mentality he had last February and March,” White said, “when we really needed him to step up as a high-level defender and rebounder.”

Hayes delivered back then, serving as Florida’s top post player during its run to the Elite Eight. And then there’s Gak, a sophomore who’s got some size on Hayes at 6-11, 245 pounds, but who lacks Hayes’ speed and athleticism. He’s been forced into the lineup with an injury to Florida’s main center, John Egbunu, who went down in February with a torn ACL. Florida is hopeful he’ll return in January. Isaiah Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 270-pound freshman is also injured. So that leaves Hayes and Gak as the team’s two best options down low, and so far, they haven’t played up to White’s standards.

“They’re more capable than that,” White said. “They’ve shown it in the past.”

But he’s confident they can recapture that past with practice. He said he challenged Hayes to do so this week, and he’s responded well in practice. But the challenges aren’t limited to post players. White also challenged guards — especially Hudson — to help make the defense as feared as the offense.

“He’s seen some improvement with that,” White said of Hudson, “and we hope it continues, of course. He’s very, very capable.”

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