After picking up consecutive wins for just the fifth time this season, the Florida men’s basketball team improved its chances of slipping into the NCAA Tournament.
With half of the team’s remaining six games coming against ranked opponents, there’s no time for the Gators to grow comfortable. Yet last week’s pair of wins did give Florida some confidence before traveling to Baton Rouge to take on No. 13-ranked LSU at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“I think there was a little pep in our step yesterday,” UF coach Mike White said Tuesday. “But hopefully (they’re not feeling) too good about themselves. We’ve played pretty well, but we’ve got more room for improvement, of course.”
The Tigers are hot, having won 14 of their previous 15 contests, but so is Florida point guard Andrew Nembhard. The freshman was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after going 9 for 9 on Saturday for a career-high 21 points in UF’s 71-53 win at Alabama. In Florida’s past six games, Nembhard has shot 62 percent from the field while displaying a more efficient 3-point shot, having hit seven of his previous 11 attempts from long range.
While many freshmen are looking to capitalize on the sparse days off in February, Nembhard hasn’t let the weariness hinder his inaugural collegiate season.
“I would like to credit him for being in the gym a lot and logging heavy minutes. He comes in on days off. He came in again Sunday just to get some extra shots. Even if it’s form shooting, spot shooting, just working on his technique,” White said. “He comes in and watches just a ton of film. He’s shot it well outside of games for the most part and sometimes in games. And the game comes a little bit easier when a guy’s making open shots and layups, and we did that in Tuscaloosa led by him.”
LSU, too, has a dynamic freshman in Naz Reid. Averaging nearly 14 points per game this season, Reid drew looks after dropping 29 points on 11-for-14 shooting in LSU’s second game of the season, a 97-91 victory over UNC Greensboro. Yet Reid is just a piece of what has helped LSU become a force in conference play this season.
“They can score it in the interior, they can pound it to a couple of guys. Tremont Waters is as difficult to defend in the open floor and off of ball screens as much as anyone in college basketball,” White said. “And they’ve got — Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart can do the same thing — they’ve got guys that can make shots, they’ve got complementary wings, they’re deep. They’re really good.”
In short, the going only gets tougher in the final stretch of the season, although the week prior did offer the Gators a slight reprieve from the pressure of being on the cusp of a NCAA Tournament berth.
“I don’t think we have a big advantage anywhere. We’ve got to be terrific with our execution offensively and defensively, our rebounding assignments, our valuing of the basketball, our press attack,” White said. “We’ve got to be really good on ball screen defense, defensive rebounding, floor bounce, all of it. Our attention to detail has got to be terrific because these guys, they’re really good. I mean, they’re a top-15 team for a reason, and only getting better.”
Who: Florida (14-11, 6-6 SEC) vs. No. 13 LSU (21-4, 11-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, La.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 7.4 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.0 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.9 ppg; 5.3 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 12.6 ppg; 2.9 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.8 ppg; 2.7 3FG
Naz Reid; F; 6-10; Fr.; 13.8 ppg; 6.3 rpg
Kavell Bigby-Williams; F; 6-11; Sr.; 7.7 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Tremont Waters; G; 5-11; So.; 15.9 ppg; 6.0 apg
Skylar Mays; G; 6-4; Jr.; 13.0 ppg; 3.0 rpg
Marlon Taylor; G; 6-5; Jr.; 7.0 ppg ; 3.6 rpg
Notes: Florida comes into Baton Rouge with two straight wins and looking for a second consecutive Quad 1 victory after defeating Alabama on the road last Saturday. … The Gators got a big week from co-SEC Freshman of the Week Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson in last week’s pair of wins. Nembhard posted 21 points at Alabama, while Johnson had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds, the most boards by a Florida freshman in an SEC game since Al Horford had 18 vs. Alabama (2/5/05). … In Florida’s last trip to Baton Rouge (1/25/17), the Gators set a program record with 19 made 3-pointers. … UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (63.1; 19th nationally) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.314). The Gators rank second in turnover margin (+3.9) and 3-pointers made (8.6) and third in field goal percentage defense (.417).
— Graham Hall