After a turbulent regular season, the SEC Tournament now could determine whether the Florida basketball team receives a bid to the NCAA Tournament or settles for the secondary NIT.
UF’s first opportunity to qualify for the former comes against Arkansas as the No. 8-seeded Gators take on the Razorbacks at 1 p.m. Thursday at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Following a season-high five-game winning streak, UF closed the season on a disappointing three-game losing streak. Before narrow defeats at the hands of two top-10 opponents, LSU and Kentucky, Florida dropped a two-possession contest at home to Georgia. While Florida’s late-season letdown was certainly concerning for UF coach Mike White, the team is emphasizing a “clean slate” mentality heading into the conference tournament.
“If we were sitting here having won four or five in a row, we’d be talking about riding this momentum. It’s easier to talk about the clean slate when you’ve lost three in a row — and that’s what we’re talking about,” White said. “New opportunities in front of us.”
Although, when it comes to the Razorbacks (17-14, 8-10 SEC), White will seemingly look for some improvement upon the team’s 57-51 win over the Razorbacks on Jan. 9. In that contest, Florida (17-14, 9-9) rebounded from a disappointing 71-69 defeat at the hands of South Carolina in the team’s SEC opener, as senior KeVaughn Allen led the team with 18 points — 11 of which came from the charity stripe.
Considering the way Allen finished the regular season, however, his head coach is hoping a familiar opponent — from the Little Rock native’s home state, too — will help Allen revert to his mid-season form. After scoring in double digits in 15 of UF’s previous 16 games, Allen has regressed into the shadows as he’s scored just 18 points on 5-for-31 shooting over UF’s past four contests.
As he has been often throughout his shooting guard’s collegiate career, White was transparent when discussing Allen’s late-season woes.
“He’s really struggled. We all know it; he knows it. We spent a little time yesterday shooting. We’ll do the same thing today. He’s got a clean slate, just like our team does,” White said of Allen. “Hopefully we are rejuvenated physically and mentally, him being as important as anyone else.”
Allen’s issues resulted in Jalen Hudson once again getting the starting nod, only this time it was in favor of the 6-foot-2 sharpshooter. It was just the second game all season in which Allen came off the bench, the first being a 71-63 victory on Dec. 18 over Mercer. Considering Allen soon after began his double-digit scoring run, White is looking for a similar result in Thursday’s win-or-go-home matchup.
“I think our guys know what’s at stake. I think you can talk about it to a certain extent. But you also have to be cognizant, too, of the confidence level of certain guys and you want to increase it, not decrease it. I don’t want to freak anybody out. I don’t want to make it worse than it is. I just think you got to be careful. (Allen is) struggling, obviously,” White said. “I haven’t found the right button, but we’re going to continue looking.”
Fortunately for Florida, Allen hasn’t been the catalyst to the team’s triumphs this season as the freshmen have continued to play a critical role in the team’s success, resulting in a notable designation for point guard Andrew Nembhard. The Aurora, Ontario, Canada, native was named to the 2019 SEC All-Freshman Team after handing out 162 assists in his inaugural season in college — a mark that ranks No. 2 by Florida freshmen, trailing only Nick Calathes’ 221 assists during the 2007-08 season.
For his part, Nembhard is more concerned with extending UF’s season than adding accolades to his resume.
“It’s exciting, who wouldn’t want to be named to the team? I’m just more focused on us trying to win games in the future,” Nembhard said. “Mentality that we preach every day is just to stay in the moment. I think we just got to take it game by game. Not too worried about what happened in the past now. Just got to win one game, look at the next one, win the next one. Just stay in the moment.”
Who: Eight seed Florida (17-14) vs. nine seed Arkansas (17-14)
When: 1 p.m. today
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 7.5 ppg; 5.8 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.8 ppg; 1.9 blk
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.9 ppg; 5.2 apg
Jalen Hudson; G; 6-5; Sr.; 8.7 ppg; 2.7 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.2 ppg; 2.5 3FG
Daniel Gafford; F; 6-11; So.; 17.0 ppg; 8.7 rpg
Gabe Osabuohien; F; 6-8; So.; 2.9 ppg; 2.9 rpg
Desi Sills; G; 6-2; Fr.; 4.7 ppg; 1.3 rpg
Isaiah Joe; G; 6-5; Fr.; 14.0 ppg; 3.4 3FG
Jalen Harris; G; 6-2; RSo.; 7.8 ppg; 2.7 rpg
Notes: Florida meets Arkansas in the SEC Tournament for the third time in the past four seasons, splitting those two recent meetings. The Gators are 4-2 all-time vs. the Razorbacks in the SEC Tournament … The Gators are 43-49 all-time in SEC Tournament play with four championships (2005, ‘06, ‘07, ‘14) and 10 total appearances in the final. UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (63.7; 21st nationally) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.316). The Gators rank second in in turnover margin (+3.6) and third in 3-pointers made (8.2) … Florida has several players who rank among the SEC leaders: KeVaughn Allen (1st, .882 free-throw percentage); Kevarrius Hayes (t-3rd, 2.7 offensive rebounds; 6th, 1.9 blocked shots); Noah Locke (4th, 2.5 3-pointers made) and Andrew Nembhard (4th, 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio; 6th, 5.2 assists).
— Graham Hall