Florida to battle Mizzou in home finale today
The end of the regular season is near for the Florida men’s basketball team — today's home finale against Missouri is the penultimate contest of the 2020-21 campaign — but the focus won’t change for the Gators, said UF coach Mike White.
There’s little time to look ahead, or back.
Who: Missouri (14-7, 7-7 SEC) at Florida (13-6, 9-5)
When: 6:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
The focus, first and foremost, for Florida is getting better in practice, then on the Tigers.
“We talk a lot about: this team has a destination and we don’t know what that destination’s going to be,” White said. “But we all have got to stay on track toward that destination until the ball has bounced for the last time with this team.”
Following victories at Auburn and at Kentucky, the Gators appear bound for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they finish the regular season and how they fare in the upcoming conference tournament in Nashville.
It would be premature yet understandable for the excitement of UF’s accomplishment to begin to settle in, now that March has arrived and the ensuing madness is right around the corner.
Bad idea, said White, especially for a Florida program that arguably has become slightly more complacent following periods of success.
“It might for our guys, and if it does — a lot of people I know would disagree with me — but my take on it would be it’s an incorrect mental approach, I think. For fans, as a young man myself when you’re just getting into coaching, you’re an assistant coach, I’m at Jacksonville State, I’m an assistant at Ole Miss, we’re not tournament bound, March is coming up, yeah, it’s exciting,“ White said. “But for these guys, today’s practice, tomorrow’s game are just as important as the ones a month ago, two months ago. They’re all so important every day. We have to play with gratitude and take advantage of these opportunities. I don’t know that there’s a better example out there — Keyontae Johnson wants to practice today, he wants to play tomorrow. So every day has got to be big. I’m not sure if the month it is really should be a factor.”
Using Johnson to make his point isn’t new to White.
Johnson’s continued presence around the program has benefitted Florida in countless ways off the court while serving as a constant reminder of the fickleness of all things; at any moment what could be an annoyance one day, such as sprints at the end of practice, may become desirable the next.
Unintentionally yet unavoidably, Johnson serves as a reminder for the Gators that being able to improve on the court is a privilege.
“It means a lot. It gives us an extra edge, it gives us that extra push when we’re getting tired or in certain times in practice, when things aren’t going well,” UF junior Noah Locke said of Johnson’s presence on the sideline. “We think about certain things like that, like us not taking anything for granted, just pushing through our adversity, and I feel like we did that a lot this year.”
But Locke hears the message of his head coach, and he knows the year isn’t over.
If anything, the time is nigh to ensure it’s not all for naught, and he also agrees that doesn’t change the approach.
“I agree with him, I feel like every time we’ve played well and had a good streak going on, we’ve just stuck to what we preach every day,” Locke said. “Just growth every day, and coming prepared, not taking anything for granted, because when we play together, play as a team, play our game, we end up on top most of the time.”
While he isn’t planning on changing his focus-level now that February’s in the rearview mirror, Locke may disagree with White on one thing: March does mean more.
Especially after last March brought madness of a different kind.
“Yeah, we definitely play for this. You know every single year we play a lot of different games to get ready for this and I’m definitely eager to play and ready to get it going in the postseason, because these games are big,” Locke said. “Me, personally, I’m excited for it. I know how it is. My freshman year playing in the SEC Tournament, in the NCAA Tournament, it’s definitely a different vibe. It’s tournament-style, it’s like winner takes it all, so it’s definitely a different vibe and I’m excited for all the guys that haven’t been able to experience it. I think I’m the only guy on the team that’s played with Florida through it, so I know how exciting it is and I know how much each game matters, and I’m definitely excited.”
12 Colin Castleton F 6-11 220 Jr. 12.9 ppg 5.8 rpg
22 Tyree Appleby G 6-1 170 Jr. 10.8 ppg 3.2 rpg
10 Noah Locke G 6-3 203 Jr. 10.6 ppg 2.5 rpg
01 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 So. 14.7 ppg 5.8 rpg
04 Anthony Duruji F 6-7 220 Jr. 6.2 ppg 4.1 rpg
23 Jeremiah Tilmon F 6-10 260 Sr. 12.9 ppg 7.7 rpg
24 Kobe Brown F 6-7 240 So. 7.9 ppg 6.0 rpg
01 Xavier Pinson G 6-2 170 Jr. 14.0 ppg 3.0 rpg
12 Dru Smith G 6-3 203 R-Sr. 13.9 ppg 3.6 rpg
13 Mark Smith G 6-5 220 Sr. 10.0 ppg 2.9 rpg
Notes: Florida sophomore point guard Tre Mann, who was named the SEC’s Player of the Week, is the only Gator since 1970 to lead the Gators in scoring and rebounding during road victories in back-to-back games ... Mann is the second Gator to win SEC Player of the Week honors this season, joining two-time honoree Colin Castleton. It’s the third time in the last five seasons that Florida has had multiple players win the award. Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov each won in 2017-18, while KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza both earned the honor in 2016-17 ... The Gators lead the SEC in all three shooting percentage categories: field goals (.468), 3-point field goals (.359) and free throw (.756).
— Graham Hall