No. 6 Tennessee poses tough test for Gators at home

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Tre Mann is prepared to take clutch shots.

Having lost three of its last four games, the Florida men’s basketball team now returns home to face the SEC’s top-ranked team, No. 6 Tennessee, with tip-off set for 7 p.m. today in Exactech Arena. 

Although Florida is mired in its worst stretch of the season when it comes to the win-loss column, coach Mike White said there’s no talk yet of the team’s future despite the skid. 

Today

Who: No. 6 Tennessee (10-1, 4-1 SEC) at Florida (6-4, 3-3)

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

But the last two weeks have indicated the Gators (6-4, 3-3 SEC) aren’t yet NCAA tournament-ready, although, with sophomore starting swingman Scottie Lewis ruled out once again for the battle with the Volunteers (10-1, 4-1 SEC) due to health and safety protocol, the focus is on improving in the short-term. 

“Oh, no, not even close to that. Haven’t discussed (the tournament). Just focused on today’s practice. So much for us to get better at. I don’t think we’re a tournament team right now. Maybe in a month I’ll think that we are,” White said. “We’ve just got some deficiencies. We’ve got some development that we’ve got to get to.”

In Saturday’s 72-69 loss at Mississippi State, the Gators trailed by nine with three minutes to play yet had a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation, but Tre Mann’s 3-point attempt — his first chance at a collegiate buzzer-beater — was off the mark. 

“The start of the possession I felt like we had a couple of people open. I understand that we’ve never been in that situation before so it was different,” Mann said. “I tried to draw a foul at the last second. I want to take those type of shots. If I have a chance to take the next one, I will. It’s just, some go in and some don’t.”

Considering the Gators hauled in just 26 rebounds to 47 by the Bulldogs, White made sure to note UF did plenty right down the stretch in order to even have a shot at extending or winning the game; moral victories don’t make-up for what Florida lacked, however, which White said was plenty of physicality in the post. 

“We did some good things in Starkville, but we get out-rebounded by 21 on the road, that doesn’t give yourself a big margin for error there, and to really have a chance at the end shows that we did some good things,” White said. “I thought we played hard. We’re not the most physical team, we’ve got to become more physical. I thought we played a little bit tired at times. We’ve got a couple frontcourt guys too that I think, in terms of the rebounding factor, have got to gain some more experience to be able to help us in that area.”

The emergence of Colin Castleton, who played 33 minutes against the Bulldogs in spite of suffering a left ankle injury, has limited the opportunities of sophomore Omar Payne. The Kissimmee native played just eight minutes against Mississippi State, and his performance was a bit of a mixed bag. He converted two of his three field goal attempts and blocked a shot, yet managed to accrue three fouls in his short time on the floor. 

Those who’ve seen Payne in practice know he’s capable of far greater than how he’s performing this season. 

“He’s got to get his confidence and some swagger back. He’s more talented than what he’s been playing. I think he’s pressing a little bit when the ball’s in his hands. Really he’s improved in some areas from his freshman year. He’s just not been given much opportunity, obviously with Colin coming down and winning that spot,” White said of Payne. “He’s had a good attitude, he continues to work. He needs to continue to improve his motor. He’s gotten better at ball screen defense and moving on the perimeter a little bit — his focus is better. He’s more vocal than he was a year ago. But as a scorer and an offensive rebounder, he’s better than how he’s playing right now. Hopefully we can help him get back to where he can really help us again.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Payne’s teammates, namely Mann, his starting point guard and fellow Class of 2019 signee. After giving up 52 points in the paint and 15 offensive rebounds in their last showing, the short-handed Gators collectively are putting the pressure on internally — before the conversation begins to include those NCAA tournament odds. 

“You are going to go through ups and downs. I went through mine last year and a little bit this year. I’m just trying to tell him to keep his head up and tell him that I’m always looking for him, so when he gets in the game I’m trying to tell him to do what he does in practice,” Mann said of Payne. “You never know whose night it is to step up, and I’m confident in all my teammates to be able to do that.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7   220   Jr.     6.2 ppg  4.0 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1  170  Jr.     9.7 ppg  2.8 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr.     9.7 ppg  2.1 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So.   14.0 ppg  5.4 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.     12.6 ppg  5.7 rpg

Tennessee

10 John Fulkerson F   6-9   215   RSr.      11.9 ppg  6.4 rpg

35 Yves Pons F   6-6  215    Sr.      7.5 ppg  5.1 rpg

05 Josiah-Jordan James G   6-6   207   Sr.      8.4 ppg 5.6 rpg

11 Jaden Springer G   6-4   204   Fr.    10.0 ppg  3.0 rpg

25 Santiago Vescovi G   6-3   188  So.   10.1 ppg  3.6 rpg

Notes: Florida looks for its fifth top-10 win under head coach Mike White. The Gators have chalked up a top-10 victory in four of White’s five seasons, with three of those victories coming in Gainesville. In those three home top-10 wins, the Gators have been dominant, winning those by an average of 20.3 points. ... Colin Castleton is the SEC leader in field goal percentage (.610) and he ranks No. 2 in blocked shots (2.3), while Tyree Appleby, who went 11-for-11 from the charity stripe against the Bulldogs, ranks second in free throw percentage (.861).

— Graham Hall