Gators looking to secure double-bye in SEC Tournament with win at Tennessee

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida's Scottie Lewis drives on Kentucky's B.J. Boston during the first half of their game last month in Lexington, Ky.

Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White tried to downplay the importance of early March, when the contenders are separated from the pretenders, and mistakes become magnified, if not decisive deficiencies for a team’s postseason hopes. 

In the Gators’ last-second home loss to Missouri on Wednesday night, UF’s shortcomings on the offensive end were apparent. Florida understands just how critical it is to bounce back at Tennessee in the regular-season finale when the team’s tip-off at 12 p.m. today in Knoxville. 

Today

Who: Florida (13-7, 9-6 SEC) at Tennessee (16-7, 9-7)

When: Noon 

TV: ESPNU

Radio: 103.7-FM

“It’s that time of year that we have to fully embrace the importance of every possession. We’ve just done a poor job with it, offensively. It’s been our most glaring deficiency all season,” White said. “We just try to make pretty plays sometimes instead of simple plays, instead of sound plays. Jumping off of one foot and making tough decisions. One-handed catches, one-handed passes. We just have to be more disciplined with the basketball.”

When it comes to shooting the basketball, the Gators are atop the SEC in all three major categories: field goals (47.2 percent), three-point field goals (35.9 percent) and free throws (76 percent). If Florida finishes the season ranked No. 1 in all three, it will be just the fourth time since the induction of the 3-point line that an SEC team has led the conference in each category, and the first time since the 2005-06 Gators that it’s been done. 

But valuing the basketball has been an entirely different story. 

The Gators (13-7, 9-6 SEC) rank No. 279 of 357 Division I teams when it comes to turnovers per game this season, as Florida averages 14.7 per contest. In just the first half against Mizzou, Florida turned the ball over 15 times, resulting in a seven-point halftime deficit.

UF hasn’t necessarily improved in that department either, averaging 16 turnovers a contest in the last three games despite going 2-1 over that stretch. 

Another chance to battle the Vols, however, may provide UF with the return to form it’s searching for. 

The Gators picked up their largest win of 2021, a 75-49 drubbing, back on Jan. 19 when Tennessee made the trip to Gainesville, and UF proceeded to win its final three games of the month before a setback. 

Yet what happened six weeks ago shouldn’t be reason for Florida to expect a facile faceoff. 

“These guys understand what Tennessee is with this particular team and their program. And that’s really anyone in our league, but Tennessee’s had a really good run, obviously, these last few years,” White said. “They’re a team that is capable of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. They have a really productive front court, veteran front court; guys who have won a lot of games in (Yves) Pons and (John) Fulkerson, of course.

"They’re playing a little bit differently, those freshmen guards. I think they’re in a good place in terms of driving it and creating. They’re playing just a little bit different offensively. I think they’re playing a little bit faster, from what I’ve watched. They’re a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.”

And it’s no secret Florida has much to play for aside from improvement. Whichever team wins Sunday’s contest will secure the coveted double-bye in the upcoming conference tournament, while the loser will be on the outside of the top-four looking in. 

“I think they’re getting prepared, we’re being prepared. So you know we take every game just game by game,” Florida guard Tyree Appleby said. “We’re going to try to come in and do the same thing we did last time, just play hard, play smart, make the right plays, and try to get the W.”

Although the SEC tournament didn’t end up being played last year, it’s eerily identical to what occurred last season when UF dropped to No. 5 in the league standings after a one-point loss to Kentucky. 

Just like protesting to the officials — which White harped on after the loss to the Tigers — that’s for the head coach to worry about rather than the five on the court. 

That’s White’s responsibility, while the player’s focus is making sure to avoid another letdown to a team it thoroughly beat when things were in greater disarray inside the program than they are now. 

“Similar situation to going into our last regular season game last year: it could swing one way or the other pretty significantly. That said, I don’t think our guys need to be worrying about that. They need to be worrying about staying in a stance and communicating and jumping to the ball and contesting shots and all those type things,” White said.

“We’re worrying about what we can control, and that’s trying to be as competitive as possible in the early minutes in Knoxville and seeing where it takes us.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

12 Colin Castleton F  6-11 220 Jr. 12.8 ppg  5.7 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1  170 Jr. 10.9 ppg  3.3 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203 Jr. 10.6 ppg 2.4 rpg

01 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So. 15.0 ppg 5.7 rpg

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7 220  Jr.  6.0 ppg 4.5 rpg

Tennessee 

10 John Fulkerson F 6-9 215 R-Sr. 9.3 ppg 5.7 rpg

35 Yves Pons F 6-6 215 Sr. 9.1 ppg 5.2 rpg

11 Jaden Springer G 6-4 204 Fr. 12.8 ppg 3.6 rpg

12 Victor Bailey Jr. G 6-4 179 R-Jr. 11.3 ppg 2.1 rpg

45 Keon Johnson G 6-5 186 Fr. 10.7 ppg 3.0 rpg

Notes: Tre Mann continues to lead the Gators in his sophomore campaign. The Gainesville native has averaged 20.3 points per game over the past three contests, shooting .667 from the field (24-for-36), .400 from 3-point range (4-for-10) and .900 from the free throw line (9-for-10). ... Florida is blocking 5.8 shots per game, which is on pace for the best per-game average in program history. Colin Castleton leads the way and ranks second in the SEC with 2.2 per game. ... Florida’s win vs. then-No. 6-ranked Tennessee in Gainesville earlier this season was the team’s fifth vs. an AP top-10 team under Mike White. The margin of victory (26) tied the Florida record for largest vs. a top-10 foe. ... According to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the Gators are an 8 seed for the NCAA tourney.

— Graham Hall