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Florida begins final five-game stretch by hosting Georgia

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida forward Colin Castleton takes a shot against Georgia in the Jan. 23 game in Athens, Ga.

There’s no talk amongst the Florida men’s basketball team just yet when it comes to discussing the Gators’ odds of making next month’s NCAA Tournament, yet the final two weeks of the season undoubtedly will determine UF’s future. 

“Every game is big, every practice is big,” UF coach Mike White said. “I’m not worried about anything bigger than that — if we are, we’re holding ourselves back from where we’re trying to get to as a team in terms of our development.”

Sitting at 10-6 after Tuesday’s loss at No. 24-ranked Arkansas, the Gators return home for a chance to pad the resume when they face Georgia, with tip-off set for 3:30 p.m. in Exactech Arena. Florida picked up a 92-84 win on the road over the 'Dawgs on Jan. 24, although the two teams have trended in different directions. UGA has lost two of its last three — although the trio of games were all against ranked SEC opponents —following a three-game win streak, and the Bulldogs make their way to Gainesville looking for vengeance. 

Today

Who: Georgia (13-8, 6-8 SEC) at Florida (10-6, 6-5)

When: 3:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

“I think they've changed their rotation a little bit, in particular who they're playing off the bench. I think that they're mixing up defenses a little bit more. They've also just found some offensive rhythm. They're shooting the ball well,” said White when asked about Georgia’s play since Jan. 23. “They're just playing well overall. I don't think they've made just one huge change in particular, but they're playing downhill. They're playing with more confidence. They're playing, obviously, more efficiently than they were early on in conference play."

After being outscored down the stretch in a second consecutive game, there’s newfound doubt regarding Florida’s offense, particularly when it comes to the team’s shot selection. 

The Gators hit just four of their 21 three-point shot attempts against the Razorbacks, and UF often wasn’t able to get a second-chance opportunity due to being a subpar rebounding team in comparison to the rest of the conference. 

While White won’t acknowledge the implications of the upcoming stretch, he won’t shy away from the offensive issues on display as of late. 

“I thought we were getting better in terms of valuing the basketball, and I think (the poor shot-selection) was probably a combination of reasons,” he said. “One, we were off (for 13 days) and so I think that a lot of guys maybe were a little too eager just to play a game, and sometimes with these young men, the excitement of playing a game translates to the excitement of putting up shots as opposed to playing the game the way that we were playing it when we were playing well. Then I also think that that stuff spreads. Another big factor is the fact that we took a couple bad ones early. And now you've got teammates looking at each other saying, 'Heck, you just took that one and I was open, now it's my turn to take one.' And obviously championship teams don't do that.”

Again, White may not say the team’s in danger of missing the tournament, but describing Florida’s play as uncharacteristic of a top-notch program is addressing the issue at hand: recently the Gators aren’t playing at a level that will result in a postseason run into late March or early April. 

With that said, not all was lost in Fayetteville. 

Despite trailing by double-digits early in the contest, the Gators took the lead late in the second half before the Razorbacks locked down on defense and closed the game at the free throw line. After a nearly two-week pause to the season, and with Colin Castleton limited on the night, the fight down the stretch was impressive to Florida’s coaching staff. 

“In our guys’ defense, I think they fought extremely hard and showed a lot of resilience to overcome the deficit that we overcame, especially shooting the ball when we did to take a one-point lead there with about four minutes to go on the road having not played a game in a long time,” White said. “I thought (Castleton) played a little bit fatigued, and that’s part of it, you know. A lot of these guys are coming off quarantine and fighting through this unique year. He’s doing the best that he can do. I thought yesterday in practice he was pretty good at times, and again showed signs at other times of needing to polish off some of that rust.”

In their penultimate home game left on the schedule, the Gators know they must overcome any fatigue and play hard from opening tip to the final buzzer — or else White may have to reinforce what’s at stake: playing past the regular season in order to continue the ultimate goal of developing. 

“We’ve just got to defend the homecourt like always,” forward Omar Payne said. “We’ve just gotta come in and just be the best version of ourselves, The Gator Standard. I think that’s the thing we’ve gotta do, is just go hard the full 40 minutes.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7 220 Jr. 5.9 ppg 3.8 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1 170 Jr. 10.6 ppg 2.9 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203 Jr. 11.1 ppg  2.6 rpg

01 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 So. 14.1 ppg 5.4 rpg

05 Omar Payne F 6-10 230 So. 4.3 ppg 3.7 rpg

Georgia

02 Sahvir Wheeler G 5-10 180 So. 13.5 ppg  3.6 rpg

05 Justin Kier G 6-4 190 Gr. 9.9 ppg 3.6 rpg

10 Toumani Camara G 6-8 220 So. 12.7 ppg 7.6 rpg

14 Tye Fagan G 6-3 195 Jr. 9.2 ppg 4.3 rpg

24 P.J. Horne G 6-6 230 Gr. 8.5 ppg 3.3 rpg

Notes: The Gators’ offense clicked at Georgia on Jan. 23, led by Tre Mann’s 24 points. Florida won for the fifth time in six trips to Athens under Mike White, and UF’s 92 points were the team’s most at Georgia in regulation since 1994 (100) ... Florida’s eight wins vs. Georgia under White is tied for the most vs. any single opponent during his tenure (Arkansas) ... Florida’s 14-for-14 free throw night at Arkansas marked UF’s most free throws without a miss since also hitting 14 vs. Alabama on Feb. 8, 2003. It was the Gators’ second-most in a road game all-time, trailing only the program record 27-for-27 night at Tennessee on Jan. 8, 1994.

— Graham Hall