Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White doesn’t anticipate a reprieve in the schedule — especially with the Gators once again set to battle the nation’s best.
UF, in search of a statement victory, tips off today at 4 p.m. in Knoxville against No.1-ranked Tennessee. On the outside looking in at 12-10, the Gators were dominated in Tuesday’s 76-62 defeat in Auburn, leading White to point out the SEC’s rise this season seemingly everywhere outside of Gainesville.
“It’s a different league than it was a year ago. Every night is very, very challenging,” White said. “You’ve got more than just a couple high-level teams. You’ve got several. And now, with the emergence of the Vols, they’re just a different program.”
The Gators are certainly a different program from the team that went 20-11 last season before falling to Texas Tech in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament, but in the dust of disappointment has emerged a promising trio of freshmen to build around. Freshmen Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are firmly fixed in the starting rotation, yet their emergence hasn’t resulted in an ability to close out contests.
The Gators have won just one of six games decided by five or fewer points this season, and White, now in his fourth year at UF, has questioned the team’s dedication.
“Hopefully the biggest thing our guys have come to understand — and I say that, (but) I don’t think it’s quite set in yet — is your daily focus and approach and your accountability level has to be terrific when you don’t have a margin for error, especially offensively,” White said. “We’ve tried more things offensively, by far, than any team I’ve had. We’ve thrown out more defenses. A lot of it is trial and error, and we’re going to continue swinging. Until the ball stops bouncing with this team, we’re going to keep working.”
Simply working may not be enough against the Volunteers (21-1, 9-0 SEC), winners of 17 consecutive contests, including a 78-67 undoing of Florida in Gainesville on Jan. 12. Kevarrius Hayes will once again be tasked with arguably the most vital role — limiting Tennessee standout forward Grant Williams, who is averaging 20.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season.
It hasn’t quite set in yet, but Hayes’ regular-season games remaining at Florida is in the single digits. With just nine games remaining until the SEC Tournament, Hayes is hoping this iteration of the Gators has grown in each narrow defeat. Otherwise, Hayes may not get one more go round in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s just playing the game all the way through the full 40 minutes. Trying to focus a lot on defense, and offense will come. We’ve got to worry about that defensive intensity throughout the entire game,” Hayes said. “We learn from each time. Each situation is definitely different. Down the stretch, it’s about staying in the moment and understanding it’s very important. We’ve had situations where we didn’t stay in the moment and we didn’t finish those games. We’ve got to understand how important it is to stay in the games the whole entire game.”
Who: Florida (12-10, 4-5 SEC) vs. No. 1 Tennessee (21-1, 9-0)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr;. 6.8 ppg; 5.6 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.0 ppg; 6.1 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.5 ppg; 5.6 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 12.9 ppg; 2.5 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 11.4 ppg; 2.8 3FG
Grant Williams; F; 6-7; Jr.; 20.1 ppg; 7.4 rpg
Kyle Alexander; F; 6-11; Sr.; 8.6 ppg; 7.3 rpg
Jordan Bone; G; 6-3; Jr.; 13.5 ppg; 6.6 apg
Lamonte Turner; G; 6-2; RJr.; 12.0 ppg; 2.1 rpg
Admiral Schofield; G; 6-6; Sr.; 16.6 ppg; 6.3 rpg
Notes: Florida plays the top-ranked team for the 18th time in team history. The Gators own 2 wins vs. a No. 1 team, defeating Duke in the 2000 NCAA Tournament and topping Ohio State in the 2007 national championship game …This marks the first time the Gators face a No. 1-ranked Tennessee team. The teams have met twice when Florida was ranked No. 1, with the Gators taking both those meetings (2/3/07; 3/15/14, SEC Tournament). Allen has scored in double figures in 15 of the last 16 games, including a career-best 11 games in a row … UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (63.4; 19th nationally) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.318), and the Gators rank second in turnover margin (+4.0) and 3-pointers made (9.0). A win for Tennessee would mark the first time the Vols have started SEC play 10-0 since the 1976-77 season.
— Graham Hall