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Gators hit road to face 'dangerous' Auburn

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida forward Anthony Duruji makes a fade-away jumper Saturday against Georgia at Exactech Arena.

Although they lead the conference in field-goal percentage heading into today's 7 p.m. tip-off at Auburn, the Florida men’s basketball team continues to strive for improved shot selection as the regular season wanes. 

Today

Who: Florida (11-6, 7-5 SEC) at Auburn (11-12, 5-9)

When: 7 p.m. 

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Along with cutting down on the turnovers — the Gators are averaging 14.4 turnovers per game this season, entrenching them in the bottom-third of Division I in the category – taking high-percentage shots is the primary focus as of now for UF, said coach Mike White. 

And on the other end of the court, the Gators have plenty of issues in need of correction. 

"'A’ shots and valuing the basketball, by far and away our two biggest offensive concerns. Defensively, foul discipline and defensive rebounding, those are our two biggest concerns there,” White said. “We’ve gotten better throughout the year at defending the three. Guarding one-on-one, at times, our isolation defense has failed us in a couple games.”

After holding Georgia to just four makes in 20 tries from 3-point land, the Gators appear set for a tougher test from downtown against the Tigers, who enter the contest averaging 9.2 3-pointers a game. 

Led by the backcourt duo of freshman Sharife Cooper, who’s averaging 20.2 points and 8.1 assists per game since joining the team in early January, and sophomore Allen Flanigan — not to mention the direction of coach Bruce Pearl — Auburn’s sub-.500 record doesn’t tell the full story of its firepower. 

“Sharife is ridiculously fast, plays with a high level of confidence, as tough a cover in space as anyone in our league that we’ll play all year. He’s obviously changed their team. They got off to a great start and then he got into the mix. They’ve had some close losses, but they’re very dangerous,” White said. “Extremely talented team, led by him. As athletic a team as we’ll play all year. He’s got a nose to score it, to draw fouls. They’re great on the offensive glass and foul line. Elite team speed, quickness and length. We’ll have to play really well, obviously.”

Cooper’s speed is evident to those who’ve watched him play this season, but according to some who saw him compete prior to the collegiate level — namely another ball-handler with a likely NBA future — his speed wasn’t always on full display. 

“I played against him a couple of times in high school,” Gators point guard Tre Mann said of Cooper. “His game changed a lot from high school and now. In high school he was more like a laid back, slow-paced kind of guy, but he could still break people down and get to the hole whenever he wanted to, but I didn’t know he was that fast until this year because I guess in high school everything was like slower for him and he was slow, nonchalant, but he looks a little bit faster than he did in high school.”

Regardless, Cooper’s play throughout just 12 games this season has impressed scouts and analysts, who project him to be a future first round NBA draft pick — no easy task for a freshman, which Mann can also attest to. 

However, the Gainesville native and former five-star recruit has undoubtedly grown this season, as Florida’s prior contest indicated. 

He may have had a pair of turnovers in the second half of UF’s 70-63 win over Georgia, but Mann avoided miscues when the 'Dawgs doubled him after crossing midcourt. 

Those types of plays may not show up in the box score, but they don’t go unnoticed. 

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Mann said. “Last year, I wasn’t really in those situations. I wasn’t really in the close games or situations like that. Just being in a lot more helped me a lot.”

Mann’s freshman campaign didn’t quite go according to plan for a variety of reasons, and the offseason was spent focusing on improving in areas where he fell short; he initially mentioned improving his mental approach to the game, which Mann, who leads the Gators in scoring in SEC play, acknowledged has helped when it comes to shot selection. 

“That was one thing I said I had to work on over the summer when I said I had to work on my mental a little bit, that was one thing where not letting a missed shot discourage me and keep me from taking another good shot, so I want to say it’s a pretty quick turn because I know that my team needs me to make shots, so that’s what I try to do, I try to make shots and take good shots.”

Like his teammates, Mann still gets yanked when he makes a mistake or settles for a subpar shot. He’s improved there, too, when it comes to handling the learning process, although it continues on the road against the Tigers. 

“Everybody wants to play, so when you do something like that and (White) takes you out, you learn from it quickly. Sometimes, like I said, you can’t really help it. Like, taking a bad shot or turning the ball over. So, when he takes you out quick, you just learn from it there, and then you try not to do the same thing he took you out for,” Mann said. “Honestly, it just lets you know that it’s important to him. So, if it’s important to him, you’ve gotta make it important to you if you want to win. If he takes you out, it shouldn’t be like a thing where you get down on yourself or mad at him. You’ve just gotta learn from it and get better.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7 220 Jr. 5.9 ppg  4.1 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1 170 Jr. 10.8 ppg  3.1 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203 Jr. 11.0 ppg  2.6 rpg

01 Tre Mann G  6-5  190 So. 14.1 ppg  5.3 rpg

05 Omar Payne F  6-10 230  So. 4.1 ppg 3.5 rpg

Auburn

10 JT Thor F   6-10  205  Fr. 9.4 ppg  4.7 rpg

23 Jaylin Williams F 6-8 230 So. 10.4 ppg  5.0 rpg

02 Sharife Cooper G 6-1 180 Fr. 20.3 ppg 4.3 rpg

22 Allen Flanigan G 6-6 215 So. 14.2 ppg 5.2 rpg

35 Devan Cambridge G 6-6 215 So. 8.6 ppg 3.6 rpg

Notes: It should be a block party in Auburn, as the Gators and Tigers rank first and second in the nation in blocked shots per game, with the Gators at 6.4 and Tigers 6.3 per game. ... Last season’s game vs. Auburn was the most recent time Florida has had two players notch a double-double in the same game. Omar Payne had 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Kerry Blackshear tallied 11 points and 16 rebounds, as Florida defeated then-fourth-ranked Auburn. ... The home team has won each of the last three regular season meetings. The last time the visitor won was 2017, when the Gators scored a 114-95 win in Auburn Arena.

— Graham Hall