Florida is prepared for an up-tempo challenge in another critical game down the stretch tonight against No. 12 Auburn.
If the SEC-leading Tigers choose to run, as has been the case all season, Florida coach Mike White said he’s willing to have his team run with them. Auburn ranks 21st in the country in adjusted offensive tempo, per Kenpom.com efficiency ratings. Florida, which has played more in the halfcourt of late, ranks 207th.
“We’d like to get in transition offense for 40 minutes a game, if they allow us, of course,” White said.
Florida started the season as more of a fast-paced offensive team, but after issues popped up in transition defense following an 83-66 loss to Florida State, White has gradually slowed the Gators down.
After scoring just 18 points in a stagnant first half in an eventual 62-57 loss to No. 19 Tennessee on Wednesday night, Florida showed signs of life offensively in the second half, scoring 39 points while playing at a faster pace.
“We got into more of a free-flowing, secondary (fast break) type stuff,” White said. “Guys played with more confidence, our guards got more downhill, made good decisions off the bounce and got each other shots. Made more extra passes. Held the ball less.”
It’s a style of play that Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson welcomes.
“That’s part of our best game,” Hudson said. “If the tempo is fast I think we can compete with them. Obviously, they’re really good at it, they do a lot of good things. They have a lot of good shooters, just like us. I feel we match up with them as well.”
To play fast, though, Florida needs to be responsible on both ends of the floor. Auburn is an explosive offensive team that ranks first in the SEC in scoring offense (84.9 ppg) and 3-pointers per game (9.9). After losing starting center Anfernee McLemore to an ankle injury last week against South Carolina, Auburn was still able to win from the perimeter by knocking down 12 3-pointers in a 90-71 home win Wednesday night against Alabama.
“When the shot goes up, and you’re supposed to get back, you’d better get back, or else we’re going to give up layups like we did against Alabama,” White said. “Our floor balance is huge in this game. Our accountability with defensive floor balance, defensive transition, sprinting back with urgency, high level of communication has got to be as good as it’s been all year or these guys can come in and put a hundred on you.”
Guarding the 3-point line will be important as well. Florida has allowed opposing teams to shoot 35.9 percent from 3-point range this season. Auburn, led by sharp-shooter Bryce Brown (39.3 percent from 3-point range), is shooting 37.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“We really have to match (up) with them,” Hudson said. “We have to find them early in transition. We don’t want to give them any easy points.”
On a three-game losing streak, the Gators are in desperate need of wins down the stretch to ensure a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Gators do have six RPI quadrant one wins, tied for the seventh most in the nation. But at 8-7 in the SEC, Florida needs to post a winning record in league play to feel secure about its ability to land an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. That means, winning two of its final three regular-season games. A win over Auburn would certainly be a good start toward that goal.
“If we can get these last three, I think we’ll be in a pretty good situation,” Hudson said. “Auburn’s is gonna be tough, you know they’re number one in our conference right now. But I think we can get them.”
White said he had another long talk with junior guard KeVaughn Allen on Thursday about maintaining his aggressiveness. Allen went 0 for 3 from the floor and was scoreless in 29 minutes Wednesday night against Tennessee. It was Allen’s first scoreless game since Jan. 12, 2016 at Texas A&M, midway through his freshman year.
“The longest meeting we’ve had, just trying to encourage him, trying to challenge him,” White said. “His teammates are trying to challenge him. Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes met with him yesterday as well. The two guys he’s closest with. They had a long pow wow. I can’t express it any more clearly that we’ve got to have him be aggressive for us.”
Allen has struggled regaining the form that made him an All-SEC preseason projection following his breakout sophomore season. The 6-foot-2 North Little Rock, Ark., native has scored in double figures in just five of UF’s first 15 SEC games and has shot 32.4 percent from 3-point range on the season.
“Every team in this league has guys that have to be aggressive for them, whether they make 10 in a row or miss 10 in a row,” White said. “He’s got to be aggressive offensively, defensively. He’s got to be assertive, he’s got to be confident. I continue to remind him that when he’s playing aggressively, at times he’s as good as most guards in the country. I believe in him and I’m going to keep encouraging him.”
Who: Florida Gators (17-11, 8-7 SEC) vs. No. 12 Auburn Tigers (24-4, 12-3 SEC)
When: 8:30 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G KeVaughn Allen;6-2;Jr.;10.8 ppg; 2.1 apg
G Chris Chiozza;6-0; Sr.;11.4 ppg;6.0 apg
G Egor Koulechov;6-5; GSr.;13.9 ppg;6.8 rpg
F Keith Stone;6-8; RSo.;8.7 ppg;4.0 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes;6-9; Jr.;5.3 ppg;5.3 rpg
AUBURN PROBABLE STARTERS
G Bryce Brown;6-3;Jr.;16.4 ppg;2.1 rpg
G Jared Harper;5-10;So.;13.8 ppg;5.8 apg
G Mustapha Heron;6-5;So.;16.1 ppg;5.4 rpg
F Desean Murray;6-7;Jr.;10.7 ppg;7.0 rpg
F Horace Spencer,6-8;Jr.;4.3 ppg;4.7 rpg
Notes: Florida has won 10 straight and 20 of its last 21 meetings against Auburn. The Gators also have taken their last 11 meetings against Auburn at home. …. Florida is facing a ranked team for the second time this week and is 4-2 against ranked teams this team. This will be UF’s first game against a ranked opponent at home, where the Gators are 10-5 overall. …
Florida leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.0) while ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3-1), third in steals (7.0) and third in 3-pointers made per game (8.9). … The Gators have been outrebounded in 9 of 15 SEC games this season, but are coming off one of their better efforts on the boards, outrebounding Tennessee 38-36 and scoring 16 second-chance points in its 62-57 loss to the Vols. The Gators are averaging 13.5 offensive rebounds over their last two games. … The Florida-Auburn matchup will pit two of the top passing point guards in the SEC — UF’s Chris Chiozza leads the SEC in assists at 6.0 per game, while Auburn’s Jared Harper ranks third in the league at 5.8 apg. With 531 career assists, Chiozza is 16 shy of Erving Walker’s school record (547 assists). … Auburn leads the SEC in steals at 7.6 per game. … The Tigers are 7-2 on the road this season. … White offered no new update on the status of senior center John Egbunu, who is still not cleared for contact practices after suffering a torn ACL on Feb. 14, 2017. “We hadn’t even talked about, period, when will you come back or John do you think you can come back because this team needs you,” White said. “I know he’s trying to get back, period. When Duke Werner tells me, hey, he’s cleared to practice, that’s when I’ll worry about it.” … Florida is one of six teams tied for third in the SEC standings, with Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Alabama.
— Kevin Brockway