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Florida looking to build on largest win vs. top-10 team under White

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Noah Locke goes to the basket to score Tuesday against Tennessee at Exactech Arena.

Tuesday’s 26-point victory over No. 6 Tennessee, the most lopsided win over a top-10 team in Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White’s tenure, was surprising in more ways than one. 

The Gators played with more confidence, physicality and tenacity than they’ve displayed all season on both ends of the floor against the Volunteers despite being down starters Colin Castleton and Scottie Lewis, in addition to the indefinite absence of Keyontae Johnson. 

Saturday

Who: Florida (7-4, 4-3 SEC) at Georgia (9-4, 2-4)

When: 2 p.m. 

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

The outcome may eventually prove to be significant when it comes to Florida’s hopes of making the NCAA tournament, but rather than dwell on bolstering their odds the Gators instead must maintain focus on the short-term, namely Saturday’s 2 p.m. tip-off on the road against Georgia. 

Like the Gators (7-4, 4-3 SEC), the Bulldogs come into the match-up with plenty of momentum after a win last weekend at Ole Miss and having defeated Kentucky, 63-62, in their mid-week contest behind P.J. Horne’s go-ahead lay-up with less than a second remaining in regulation. 

Wednesday’s victory marked the first win for UGA (9-4, 2-4) over the Wildcats in more than seven years, and it simultaneously asserted that coach Tom Crean’s team wasn’t meant to be taken lightly this season despite losing freshman phenom Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, from last year’s team. 

“They’re playing with swagger and confidence and really guarding at a high level. They just do a great job of cutting without the basketball,” White said of Georgia. “They’re long, they’re athletic. They’re interchangeable offensively. They present challenges. They’re really good on the offensive glass and they’re creating a lot of turnovers, too, with speed and quickness. They’ve been pretty disruptive as of late.” 

Fortunately for Florida, there’s hope the Gators will get Castleton back after he sat out the win over the Volunteers due to an unspecified ankle injury suffered Jan. 15 at Mississippi State. 

The Daytona Beach native wasn’t able to participate in practice throughout the week until Friday morning’s session, although Castleton will travel with the team to Athens. 

As for Lewis, White didn’t have much information to give, likely due to the fact the sophomore’s absence relates to COVID-19. 

“He’s trying to fight through some discomfort there. It’ll be a game-time decision for him,” White said of Castleton. “We’ll evaluate him tomorrow and really this travel today and how that ankle holds up. And with Scottie, I’ll find out tomorrow from our medical people. He has not done much at all. Going through those protocols.”

Which means the Gators can’t bank on hope, and a victory may require an effort similar to that of Tuesday; how to replicate the formula remains anyone’s guess. 

“That’s the million-dollar question: how can we be just as focused and alert and connected offensively and defensively, and play with that level of momentum and tempo offensively and be that locked in and alert on the defensive end? That’s the challenge to our whole group,” White said. “We’ve been pretty good the last couple days. It doesn’t always carry over. Practicing really well doesn’t always translate to playing a game really well, and vice versa, but I do believe we got better the last couple days. We had the right approach. I think our guys know that when we play with that level of urgency, whoever we’ve got that’s available, it gives us a chance to be competitive. I expect to be competitive tomorrow, although Georgia is a playing a lot better, coming off a couple wins, of course. They’ve got a lot of strengths we need to focus on.”

If Castleton is a no-go once again, the Gators will look to sophomore Omar Payne, who turned in an impressive nine-point, nine-rebound, five-block performance in 27 minutes while making the start at the five. 

Just a day earlier, with Castleton’s playing fate still unknown, White admitted Payne had struggled with the limited role earlier in the season, saying the Kissimmee native needed to compete on the floor in games with the same level of confidence he brings in practice. 

When the opportunity arose, so did his confidence, and Payne made the most of it; the weight of Florida’s frontcourt on him, he played without trepidation. Now the question for a team ever-focused on the moment is how to replicate that fearless approach. 

“I think, though, just the human instinct of whether you call it a fear or this game is way bigger than me, I think it happens in athletics a lot, when your back’s against the wall and you’re short-handed, and the natural inclination is to be incredibly locked in because of potentially — I don’t put words in my guys’ mouths — it not being very pretty for you if this isn’t an incredible performance, in terms of carrying out the scouting report and playing together, making right plays and just incredibly focused on the enormous task at hand,” White said. “I feel better about our bench going into this one for sure, but sometimes the productivity doesn’t always match up with the prediction or the feeling, but over time I am confident that our bench will continue to get better.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7 220 Jr. 6.1 ppg 3.9 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G 6-1170 Jr. 10.0 ppg 2.9 rpg

10 Noah Locke G 6-3 203 Jr. 10.1 ppg 2.2 rpg

01 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 So. 13.8 ppg 5.3 rpg

05 Omar Payne F 6-10 230 So. 3.9 ppg 3.4 rpg

Georgia

02 Sahvir Wheeler G 5-10 180 So. 14.2 ppg  3.4 rpg

05 Justin Kier G  6-4 190 Gr. 10.5 ppg 3.9 rpg

10 Toumani Camara F 6-8 220 So. 13.3 ppg 7.4 rpg

14 Tye Fagan G 6-3 195 Jr. 9.9 ppg 4.9 rpg

24 P.J. Horne G 6-6 230 Gr. 9.5 ppg 3.8 rpg

Notes: In Florida’s four home top-10 wins under coach Mike White, the Gators have been dominant, winning those by an average of 21.8 points ... Although he didn’t play against the Volunteers, Colin Castleton still leads the SEC in field-goal percentage (61%) ... A Gators big man has blocked at least five shots in UF’s last three games.

— Graham Hall