Unprompted, Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White quipped about an “easy week” for the Gators — an acknowledgment of the daunting schedule ahead.
The Gators travel to Auburn today for a 9 p.m. tip in Auburn Arena, and White admitted the team’s conditioning is “a concern” after UF looked noticeably gassed late in Florida’s 65-54 loss Saturday against Kentucky.
The fatigue resulted in a rather low-key Sunday for the Gators, and White noted Monday’s practice session would be quick. The hope is that Florida’s starters have regained their legs in time to defend Auburn’s prolific offense.
“This is about just trying to be competitive on the road, hoping Auburn doesn’t get a hundred on us. They are so good offensively, unbelievable mix of being a top-10 offense, complemented with leading the nation in blocks and turning you over. It’s pretty rare,” White said. “If our focus is anywhere else, we’ll be non-competitive. It’s going to be a rabid environment, but a great opportunity.”
The Tigers, one of just seven NCAA Division I teams without a scholarship freshman on the roster, boast one of the SEC’s top backcourts in Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. Harper ranks second in the SEC in assists with 6.4 per game, while Brown’s 17.1 points per game is good for fourth in the conference.
“They might be the best backcourt in the country. They, definitely in my opinion, are the most underrated backcourt in the country,” White said. “You just don’t hear a lot of people talking about them as much on the national scene as much as they deserve.”
The Gators, meanwhile, have a promising young trio of freshmen in Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson — the three have been a bright spot in what so far has been a down season for the program. Nembhard, who leads the Gators in minutes per game, has seen his offensive production increase as of late. He’s scored in double digits in back-to-back games for just the second time in his young UF career, and Nembhard has been hitting 3-pointers at a higher rate, too, having made six of his last 11 attempts.
“I think it’s just confidence,” Nembhard said. “Seeing it go down more is just kind of giving me more confidence to keep shooting them, keep making them.”
Nembhard said his conditioning is improving “every day,” although he too acknowledged the Gators were drained in the decisive stretch against the Wildcats. After the game, the Ontario, Canada, native was quick to dismiss any notion that Florida’s recent slate has contributed to the sluggish play down the stretch — an assertion Nembhard doubled down on Monday.
“Everybody’s going through the same thing we’re going through. SEC is a grind. No excuses come Tuesday, for sure,” Nembhard said. “It’s going to be a really tough war for us. For any team in the NCAA, to be honest. They’re really fast, score the ball a lot, play really good defense. So it’s going to be a really good test.”
Florida may meet the challenge early against the Tigers (15-6, 4-4 SEC), but White and the Gators know that closing games is the issue at hand. If UF hopes to pick a much-needed win in Auburn, it will have to work for all 40 minutes, White implied.
“Well, the negative is we just haven’t found a way to close. The positive is, we’re not a great team, but we’ve been right there with those teams. I think our team has shown some resilience. I think that our team’s got some fight to them,” White said. “Our guys have shown some character. We all know what the negatives are: to find a way to close, to hold on.”
Who: Florida (12-9, 4-4 SEC) vs. Auburn (15-6, 4-4)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 6.8 ppg; 5.4 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 6.8 ppg; 2.1 blk
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.5 ppg; 5.8 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 13.0 ppg; 2.7 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 11.4 ppg; 2.8 3FG
Chuma Okeke; F; 6-8; So.; 10.5 ppg; 6.3 rpg
Anfernee McLemore; F; 6-7; Jr.; 7.1 ppg; 4.5 rpg
Jared Harper; G; 5-11; Jr.; 15.5 ppg; 2.8 rpg
Bryce Brown; G; 6-3; Sr.; 17.1 ppg; 3.6 3FG
Samir Doughty; G; 6-4; Jr.; 8.1 ppg; 3.7 rpg
Notes: Florida puts its 11-game win streak vs. Auburn on the line in the teams’ only regular-season meeting. UF has won 21 of the last 22 against the Tigers … The Gators have taken nine in a row at Auburn, a streak that began in 2001. In Florida’s last trip to Auburn (2017), it set a school record for most points in an SEC game with 114 … KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke have stepped up their offensive production in SEC play. Allen has tallied 17.4 points and Locke 15 per game during conference action, ranking 7th and 13th in the league respectively … Allen has scored in double figures in 14 of the last 15 games, including a career-best 10 games in a row … UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (62.8; 15th nationally) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.315), and the Gators rank second in turnover margin (+4.5) and 3-pointers made (9.2).
— Graham Hall