Who: Mississippi State (12-7, 3-3 SEC) vs. Florida (12-7, 4-2)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: O’Connell Center
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
As the news of Kobe Bryant’s death rippled through the basketball world Sunday, coach Mike White and the Florida men’s basketball team had just wrapped up a film review and were preparing for practice.
When the circumstances became clear, the deaths of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, an aspiring basketball star herself, and the seven passengers who died in Sunday’s helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, left the Gators understandably “crushed”.
“I was always a fan of his approach to the game and his competitive spirit. What a winner," White said of Bryant. "Enjoyed watching him win championships for a long time and competed at a high level. I think we were all kind of anxious to see what was around the corner for him next. Just tragic. Tough day yesterday for a lot of people, obviously. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” White said.
“Being a father? Oh, my goodness. It makes it even tougher to swallow, just incredibly tragic. We were coming out of film and we heard that he had passed and then a few minutes later we heard about his daughter. It was tough in the gym for a little bit. We had to do our best to get our guys to refocus. Our guys were crushed to get ready to practice and get some work done.”
It was another reminder of life’s fickle nature – Bryant, who always rose to the occasion, who never seemed to shy away from making the moment his, was gone.
“It was just a shock honestly. None of us really believed what was happening. It was just a shock; I still can’t believe it happened,” point guard Andrew Nembhard said. “I watched him a lot, something I took from him was just his work ethic, something that I think everybody listened to him for (inspiration).”
With Florida resuming conference play against Mississippi State at 7 p.m. in the Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center after an 11-point loss to top-ranked Baylor, White gathered the team together and emphasized the message that Bryant’s play on the court frequently embodied.
“We huddled real quick and talked about how you’ve got to be thankful for every day that you’ve got and every opportunity and approach every day with gratitude,” White said. “None of us are promised tomorrow. We’ve got to refocus and get some work done. That’s it.”
After a daunting stretch that saw the Gators claim a 22-point victory over then-No. 4 Auburn, only to have a winless week at LSU and then back home against the Bears, the slate eases up slightly for the Gators – meaning White expects Florida (12-7, 4-2 SEC) to step up to an opportunity to improve the team’s resume.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, however. Not against a Bulldogs (12-7, 3-3) team that has developed a reputation this season for hounding the glass on both ends with three of the SEC’s top-10 rebounders.
“We need to win ‘em all. We’ll be prepared for these guys, you know, Mississippi State if they don’t have our guys attention then something’s wrong with us. They’re extremely talented, top-four in the SEC in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country, I think they’re second in all of college basketball in offensive rebounding. It seems like I think the last 10 games have been the best 10 offensive rebounding teams in the country,” White said.
“We might as well put the number up there today on the screen so they believe us because it seems like that’s been a constant theme. We’ve got to defend our glass, obviously. They’re so good at defending the interior, as well. Their size, they can play a couple different ways like us. It will be a high-level SEC game. Two teams that need a win.”
Omar Payne;F;6-10;223;Fr.;5.1 ppg;4.5 rpg
Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;13.1 ppg;6.6 rpg
Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;14.5 ppg;8.4 rpg
Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;11.3 ppg;6.2 apg
Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;10.1 ppg;2.9 rpg
Reggie Perry;F;6-10;250;So.;16.4 ppg;10.4 rpg
Abdul Ado;F;6-11;255;RJr.;5.5 ppg;6.7 rpg
Nick Weatherspoon;G;6-2;185;Jr.;12.2 ppg;3.2 rpg
D.J. Stewart Jr.;G;6-6;205;RFr.;8.0 ppg;2.2 rpg
Robert Woodard II;G;6-7;235;So.;11.5ppg;7.5 rpg
Notes: Florida returns to SEC action after taking a swing at No. 1 Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Gators refocus on conference play after coming up short vs. a veteran Bears team that hasn’t lost since the second game of the season, a 67-64 defeat against Washington in Anchorage, Alaska … Despite the pair of setbacks last week, the Gators enter Tuesday’s game in a four-way tie for third in the SEC standings, holding the tiebreaker over two of the other 4-2 teams … Florida is 3-1 vs. the Bulldogs under Mike White, with the lone loss coming last season in Starkville. The Gators have won six straight vs. MSU in Gainesville, last losing in 2008 … Though Noah Locke’s 15-game streak with multiple 3-pointers ended Saturday, he still owns a 17-game streak with at least on made 3-pointer.