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Florida looking to get back on track against surging Kentucky

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Alabama forward Herb Jones drives to the basket Tuesday against Florida guard Scottie Lewis (23) at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

A setback at Alabama derailed the Florida men’s basketball team’s impressive play early in SEC competition, but the Gators have plenty of opportunities to get back on track, starting with a 5 p.m. tipoff today at Exactech Arena in the O’Connell Center against an underwhelming yet surging Kentucky team. 

Today

Who: Kentucky (3-6, 2-0 SEC) at Florida (5-2, 2-1)

When: 5 p.m. 

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

The Wildcats have won just three of nine contests this season, but arrive in Gainesville on a two-game winning streak. 

UK (3-6, 2-0 SEC) downed Mississippi State, 78-73, in the 'Cats’ conference opener and pulled off a 77-74 come-from-behind win Jan. 5 against Vanderbilt to keep coach John Calipari’s team undefeated in 2021. 

“It’s usually one of the best defensive teams in the country. Continuing to tighten up there, and they’re making shots. They’re shooting it better. I know they had some early struggles there, played a really tough schedule, and they’re 2-0 in the league,” UF coach Mike White said when asked to assess Kentucky. “I think they’re progressing and developing, and we are, too. It’s not a typical midseason SEC game, obviously, with all the context. We’re still a ways away from where we could be in time, and they’re in the same situation.”

Florida may be trending in the opposite direction of the Wildcats, however, as the Gators are looking to return to the form they displayed in their first week of SEC play after the team “really struggled” in White’s eyes against the Crimson Tide in the 86-71 loss, a final result that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. 

“Defensively, our transition defense was very bad the other day. It really failed us. We continue to make bad, erratic decisions at times,” White said. “We’re playing very hard. That said, those decisions lead to fouls. We’re fouling way too much.”

The culprit Tuesday in Tuscaloosa was a member of Florida’s essential personnel, wing Scottie Lewis. 

After picking up two fouls within the span of 20 seconds near the midpoint of the first half, Lewis, Florida’s leader in minutes-per-game this season, sat the rest of the first half and finished the contest with a season-low two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field in 20 minutes, the least amount of time he’s spent on the court through seven games of his sophomore campaign. 

College basketball has slowly begun to move away from automatically sitting a player with two fouls in the first half, and White said he considered leaving Lewis in despite the foul trouble — based in part on Lewis’ pleas.

Instead, White opted to sit him the rest of the first half and insert him at the top of the second half, wherein Lewis proceeded to pick up his third and fourth fouls prior to the under-16 media timeout. 

“Maybe giving you too much info here, but it’s the truth. Scottie will laugh, too. I know he can take it. But you’ve got to earn that trust. And with certain guys, you probably look at it differently than with other guys. Scottie is now a little bit more mature, midway through his sophomore year. As you guys have mentioned, (media) uses the word ‘glue’: that’s who we need him to be for us, and he’s important for us,” White said. “So we sat him the rest of the first half, and then he gets the third one and he looks at me and says, ‘I’m fine. I’m good. Keep me. I’m not going to get the fourth.’

"The next possession, he gets the fourth. That’s on me. We probably should have gotten him out of the game. Every one of your guys is going to say, ‘I’m good. I can handle the foul trouble.’ Those are tough decisions to make. Sometimes you hit it right, sometimes you don’t.”

With Lewis, Florida’s defender in transition, limited, the Gators struggled to get back, resulting in all 11 of the Crimson Tide’s fastbreak points coming in the second half. 

Lewis could have been dejected or sullen when Florida reconvened for practice Thursday, but that’s not who he is; as he did when urging to stay in at Bama, Lewis is too optimistic to let a short-term setback turn into a long-term letdown — especially with the Wildcats, one of his finalists prior to signing with the Gators, surging and en route. 

“He’s been great. It was a struggle because of the foul trouble, but he stepped up,” Gators guard Tyree Appleby said of Lewis. “He’s still one of the leaders on our team, so we all talked about it, watched film on it and everything, but he’s great. He’s been probably the most positive person on our team, just keeping everybody on track and staying focused on the right task.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7   220   Jr.     5.7 ppg  4.0 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr.    9.9 ppg  2.0 rpg

23 Scottie Lewis G  6-5  189  So.   12.3 ppg  4.6 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So.   14.6 ppg  5.6 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.     11.9 ppg    5.3 rpg

Kentucky

30 Olivier Sarr F   7-0  237   Sr.   11.3 ppg  6.0 rpg

55 Lance Ware F   6-9   223   Fr.   1.8 ppg  3.8 rpg

02 Devin Askew G   6-3   198   Fr.    7.6  ppg 2.4 rpg

03 Brandon Boston Jr. G   6-7   185   Fr.   12.8 ppg  5.4 rpg

10 Davion Mintz G   6-3   196  Gr.    10.0 ppg  3.6 rpg

Notes: Saturday’s contest will mark the first time since 2010 that UF and UK have played in January in Gainesville, with Jan. 9 being the earliest date the teams have met since a Jan. 2, 1999 match-up. ... The Gators enter game ranked No. 1 in the SEC in field-goal percentage (.497) and No. 3 in scoring (81.7). ... Following his breakout week of SEC play, Colin Castleton led UF’s starters in scoring against Alabama with 13 points. Castleton earned co-SEC honors for his 44-point week, which included a career-high 23 points against Vanderbilt followed by a 21-point performance at LSU.

— Graham Hall