Florida looking to stay hot in icy Missouri

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Florida forward Keyontae Johnson moves past Missouri guard Xavier Pinson during last year's game. The Gator won 64-60 over the Tigers. [Lauren Bacho/Gainesville Sun]

Coming off an 81-68 win Tuesday at South Carolina, the Florida men’s basketball team is looking to stay hot in spite of the cold.

When the Gators take the court at 8:30 p.m. in Columbia, Missouri, for a match-up with the Tigers (8-6, 0-2 SEC), there’s no telling how many will be in attendance considering the weekend’s weather forecast.

The state is preparing for Winter Storm Isaiah, which is expected to bring snow and ice throughout the midwest Saturday and possibly into Sunday.

With the most severe weather predicted for just after tip-off, the conditions will affect Florida’s travel plans, too — a minor inconvenience that Gators coach Mike White pointed out is just another aspect of conference play.

“We’re going to stay there for two nights, as opposed to potentially sitting on a plane for a long time and de-icing, and this and that, and hardly getting any sleep because we’ve got another really quick turnaround in the next one,” White said. “We’re going to play the game, go back to the hotel, try to get as much sleep as possible, fly back here that following day — what day would that be? Sunday? — come right to the gym and practice. It’s the grind of the SEC season.”

Fortunately for Florida, the start of the slog that often is league play has been fruitful; the Gators maintained their momentum from the double-overtime win over Alabama in the team’s SEC opener by leading for the final 28 minutes in South Carolina en route to a double-digit decision that kept UF unbeaten in the conference.

Meanwhile in the midwest, Missouri followed up a 71-59 loss at Kentucky in the conference opener with a dismal 59-49 loss Tuesday at home to Tennessee, a contest that saw the Tigers hit just 35.2% of their shots from the field compared to the Volunteers’ 53.5%.

While the Tigers are still searching for their form on offense, the Gators appear to have found their’s at the right time — thanks, in part, to Andrew Nembhard.

In Florida’s previous three contests, the sophomore point guard has scored a total of 51 points on 46.2 percent shooting, while dishing 27 assists, including a career-high 13 against Long Beach State University.

“He’d been really steady. I think just gaining confidence. You’ve seen it, we’re all seeing the same thing. You can kind of read it in his body language, and with his actions, as well. He’s playing with a high level of confidence,” White said of Nembhard. “He’s really seeing the game well, making great decisions. Obviously, we’re playing through him a lot and he’s taking advantage of those opportunities. He was fantastic the other night and, obviously, we hope we continue to get that level of play from him, because he’s playing as well as most point guards out there right now.”

Rather than take the credit for his offensive uptick, Nembhard said he’s a byproduct of the collective’s improvement.

“I think it’s just how the team’s playing. I think we’re just moving the ball more, kind of looking for the best shots. I think it just ended up where I’ve had an opportunity to make the play. It’s kind of the way the team’s been playing, I have a lot of opportunity,” Nembhard said. “I think we’ve just learned our pace that we want to play at. Picking our spots, when to play really fast, when to play kind of slower. I think we’ve done a better job at that.”

And yet, as White knows all too well, the grind of the SEC leaves little room for Nembhard and the Gators to simply assume they’ll stay hot heading into icy Columbia.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in Andrew. After a couple of games like that’s just what happens organically as a staff, teammates, and a head coach — you put more faith into a guy. That trust level increases, certainly. He has earned that. Last game is over, of course. He has got to prepare to have a big one here at Missouri and we need him to do so,” White said. “He can’t go into Missouri and we can’t go to Missouri, and say, ‘hey you got to go and get us 25 again, and you got to get these many shots.’ We will see how we are going to be defended. You have to make good decisions, defend, and play with that level of confidence, and the ball will find the open guy.”


PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;13.4 ppg;6.9 rpg

Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;14.6 ppg;8.7 rpg 

Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;11.4 ppg;6.1 apg

Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;9.9 ppg;3.2 rpg 

Scottie Lewis;G;6-5;185;Fr.;9.2 ppg;5.0 rpg

Missouri

Mitchell Smith;F;    6-10;221;RJr.;4.3 ppg;3.8 rpg

Reed Nikko;F;6-10;240;Sr.;2.2 ppg;2.1 rpg

Kobe Brown;F;6-7;240;Fr.;5.6 ppg;2.9 rpg

Dru Smith;G;6-3;203;RJr.;11.3 ppg;4.4 rpg

Mark Smith;G;6-5;220;Jr.;11.1ppg;4.7 rpg

Notes: The Gators are also looking to earn their 100th win under Mike White. White, coaching his 157th game at UF on Saturday, stands just a handful of games behind the pace set by future Hall of Famer Billy Donovan, who reached the milestone in 154 games, and well ahead of Florida’s remaining 100-win coaches (Sam McAllister 170, Lon Kruger 172, Norm Sloan 180). Mizzou is looking to snap a four-game losing streak against Florida. A win for the Tigers on Saturday would mark Mizzou’s first victory over the Gators since Feb. 24, 2015. The last two meetings in the series have been decided in the final 15 seconds. Mizzou is 7-1 this season when opponents have made six or fewer three-pointers. The Tigers are one of just 15 teams nationally to hold five different opponents to three or fewer treys in a game this season.