Looking to pick up a season-high fourth consecutive win, the Florida men’s basketball team has seemingly grown closer throughout the up-and-down 2018-19 campaign, resulting in the team playing its best entering Saturday’s match-up with Missouri at 4 p.m. in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“I’d say we have more guys who are connected,” guard KeVaughn Allen said. “More guys playing together.”
Allen said he has yet to discuss the impending conclusion of the regular season with fellow seniors Kevarrius Hayes and Jalen Hudson, yet the three are aware of the implications at stake.
With Florida’s postseason hopes hanging by a thread, it was the upperclassmen who, according to coach Mike White, urged the team onward. Allen, for his part, has shown an ability of late to bounce back after slow starts. During Wednesday night’s 82-77 overtime victory over LSU in Baton Rouge, the Little Rock, Ark., native was held scoreless in the first half before erupting for 21 points over the next 25 minutes of action.
“We’ve just tried to take it day-by-day, try to get better each and every day in practice and try to get it to carry over to the game,” Allen said Friday. “It starts today in practice, then go out and go hard and compete.”
As if the daily reminders of the postseason odds aren’t enough, the program will honor the 25th anniversary of the 1993-94 team — the first UF men’s basketball team to reach the Final Four — during halftime of Saturday’s game. Furthermore, the current crop of Gators will don throwback uniforms similar to those worn by the ’94 team.
Florida (15-11, 7-6 SEC) is back home for three of its next four contests, and the upcoming slate gives the Gators a reasonable opportunity to extend their winning streak to six games. First come the Tigers (12-13, 3-10 SEC), however, who White emphasized are not to be overlooked despite a 3-10 record in league play.
“They’re gonna come in here and guard the heck out of us. They just are. That’s what they do,” White said. “In addition, they on the season are shooting 37 percent from three. You got eight different guys shooting 33 percent or better from three. That’s very, very rare. We’ve got eight guys that we’ve got to scout as shooters, again with the complement of (Jeremiah) Tilmon and Kevin (Puryear) on the interior. So, very difficult to guard. They really space you, they run good stuff, they execute.”
Yet for all of their issues on the offensive end this season, the Gators continue to be one of the nation’s top teams on the defensive end. Currently ranked 10th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating, the Gators also lead the SEC in three-point field-goal percentage defense. Suffice to say, the Gators seemingly match up well on paper with the Tigers, yet the game isn’t decided by preconceived notions.
“Our line is: you got an hour. Let’s celebrate this for an hour,’ and let’s move onto the next opponent. This team’s had a lot of adversity,” White said. “I want our guys feeling good. We talked about Missouri briefly and then yesterday we jumped into them much more intensely. But beforehand, again, we spent that three minutes or so just talking about big picture, just the process and right now, being right here. That’s it. That’s all that matters, and trying to reduce all of the external noise.”
Who: Missouri (12-13, 3-10 SEC) vs. Florida (15-11, 7-6)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 7.4 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.1 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.9 ppg; 5.4 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 12.9 ppg; 2.9 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 11.0 ppg; 2.7 3FG
Jeremiah Tilmon; F ; 6-10; So.; 10.7 ppg; 5.8 rpg
Kevin Puryear; F ; 6-7; Sr.; 7.2 ppg; 5.2 rpg
Xavier Pinson; G ; 6-2; Fr.; 6.5 ppg; 2.7 apg
Javon Pickett; G ; 6-4; Fr.; 8.4 ppg; 2.8 rpg
Marlon Taylor ; G; 6-2; Sr.; 14.1 ppg ; 4.7 rpg
Notes: Florida and Missouri square off in their only scheduled meeting this season, as the Gators welcome home the 1994 Final Four team for a 25th anniversary celebration. … The Gators come in on a three-game winning streak and look to extend the run to what would be a season-best four wins in a row. … Mizzou is looking for its third win over Florida in the all-time head-to-head series and its first over the Gators since Feb. 24, 2015, after last year’s 77-75 loss in Columbia. The Tigers have never won in Gainesville. Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin is 3-4 all-time vs. Florida. … Florida and Mizzou are two of the league’s best defensive times, as both rank first and second, respectively, in 3-point field goal percentage defense and both are holding teams to 69 points or fewer this season (two of only five teams in the league).
— Graham Hall