Who: Alabama (7-5, 0-0 SEC) vs. Florida (8-4, 0-0)
When: 6 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Although “clean slate” and “fresh start” are common, if not overused, phrases when it comes to athletics, they’re terms Mike White and the Florida men’s basketball team aren’t shying away from as Florida prepares to host Alabama for the start of Southeastern Conference play.
“I’ll say it: Fresh start. For all of us, really. Great opportunities,” said White. “Our schedule to this point has been very difficult, of course, and continues to get more difficult. I don’t know who you play in this league and say, ‘We’re gonna get healthy tonight against these guys.’ Night in, night out, some of the best teams in the country. Great coaches, great players, great preparation. Great crowds and arenas. It’s exciting.”
Coming off a 102-63 dismantling of Long Beach State University that capped the team’s non-conference schedule — save for a Jan. 25th match-up with Baylor — the Gators aren’t looking back on the first half of the season with disdain, although that doesn’t mean the team wishes things had gone a bit differently, to say the least. Boasting a No. 6 ranking in the preseason top-25 poll, UF tumbled all the way out of the rankings despite possessing one of the nation’s toughest schedules. While the 8-4 record wasn’t the intended result, it’s taught the Gators several lessons as they prepare to battle the Crimson Tide (7-5).
“It had ups and downs. Obviously we wanted to have a better record than we have right now, but I think it’s been a really good learning experience for us, and I think it’ll only help us in our (conference) season,” said sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard, who dished a career-high 13 assists in UF’s 39-point victory over The Beach. “Biggest lesson (so far) is to not worry about the hype and just worry about getting better, really.”
Nembhard, the lone Gator with more assists than turnovers, said the team made a concerted effort to play with an increased pace against LBSU, resulting in the team’s cracking the century mark for the first time in more than two years. For that to happen consistently, UF will have to keep hitting shots consistently, too — something easier said than done, as the Gators can attest to for much of this season.
“We’re probably a little hopeful that we would have had one or two more wins at this point. That said, there is plenty of basketball ahead of us,” White said. “We’ve got to pass the ball better, we’ve got to shoot the ball better. Period. We’ve got one guy with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. We might be one of the only teams in the country with that."
Considering the Gators have just 10 scholarship players available after Gorjak Gak’s departure — the second player to leave the team in late-December in as many seasons — the team’s ceiling could once again be determined by the play of the underclassmen.
Although White acknowledged the three freshmen guards will need to step up most in the second half of the season, the play of 6-foot-10 freshman forward Omar Payne — who provided 11 points and nine rebounds in his first collegiate start last Saturday — may ultimately prove to be the most critical heading into conference play.
“With Gak leaving, obviously it’s another spot for guys to fill in and step up, and I think Omar’s been doing that really well lately,” Nembhard said.” I think he’s just playing much harder. We all know he can be a really big factor for us on the offensive glass and just contesting shots and I think he did that last game, I think he’s bringing it more every day in practice.”
Keyontae Johnson F 6-5 231 So. 13.3 ppg 6.4 rpg
Kerry Blackshear Jr.F 6-10 241 Gr. 14.2 ppg 8.4 rpg
Andrew Nembhard G 6-5 193 So. 9.4 ppg 5.9 apg
Noah Locke G 6-3 207 So. 9.5 ppg 2.3 3fg
Omar PayneF6-10 223 Fr. 4.3 ppg 4.0 rpg
Javian DavisF 6-9 242 RFr. 8.3 ppg 4.7 rpg
Herbert JonesF 6-7 205 Jr. 8.5 ppg 5.4 rpg
Alex ReeseF6-9 245 Jr. 9.1 ppg 5.1 rpg
Kira Lewis Jr.G 6-3 165 So. 16.6 ppg 5.5 rpg
John Petty Jr.G 6-5 184 Jr. 16.4 ppg 7.4 rpg
Notes: Florida-Alabama series has seen the road team win in each of the past six regular-season meetings (Florida claimed the SEC Tournament meeting in 2015) … The past four games have been particularly rough on the hosts with the Gators winning in Tuscaloosa by 13 in 2017, 21 in 2018 and 18 in 2019 and Alabama winning by 18 in 2018 in Gainesville … The Gators and Crimson Tide meet in the SEC opener for the first time since a 90-83 Florida win at Alabama on Jan. 8, 2008. … UF’s KenPom.com ranking is 24, NET ranking is 55, Top-50 wins: vs. Xavier (27), Losses: Florida State (20), at Connecticut (58), at Butler (7), vs. Utah State (59).