Gators hope brief rest leads to rejuvenation at SEC Tournament

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida had trouble playing defense in the second half of its game last Sunday at Tennessee. Volunteers guard Yves Pons (35) shoots the ball against Florida forward Omar Payne at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Gators lost 65-54, their second consecutive setback to end the regular season.

Florida coach Mike White hasn’t minced words in the months since Keyontae Johnson’s collapse on the court, saying no team in the country has dealt with more mental strife than the Gators this season. 

White has looked for opportunities to give his basketball team a needed reprieve, and he decided a mini-break at the conclusion of the regular season was much-needed. 

Today

What: SEC Tournament

Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

Who: No. 12 seed Vanderbilt (8-15) vs. five seed Florida (13-8)

When: About 2:30 p.m. 

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM, 103.7-FM

The hope is it results in some rejuvenation for a team that will play Vanderbilt, a 79-68 winner over Texas A&M on Wednesday night, in today’s second-round contest at the SEC Tournament. 

“We’ve had more to deal with mentally than any team in college basketball, so fatigue is often physical. I think the mental fatigue is just as important. Sometimes that mental fatigue can make guys look physically tired and banged up, and not have the pop that they normally have physically,” he said. “I do hope with the way that we’ve rearranged these last couple days will give us a little bit of added extra pop, as opposed to if we’d really gotten after it today and yesterday.

"So hopefully it balances out, and hopefully it’s very little of a factor in that it’s do or die. It’s a chance also on the flip end of that to compete for a championship.”

The Gators have a pair of wins over the Commodores and have yet to play the Aggies this season. Asked whether he’d rather play an opponent they’d yet to face or one they’ve beaten twice already, White jokingly wished for TAMU-Vandy to go into triple overtime instead of answering. 

His point guard, Tre Mann, couldn’t decide either — or wouldn’t publicly tip his hand, at least — but the expectation is the Gainesville native will make his return to the court regardless of the opponent. 

Mann was a late scratch for Florida’s season finale at Tennessee due to a migraine, with the team only learning just prior to leaving the hotel for the arena that Mann would be unable to go against the Volunteers. 

“Found out he wasn’t going basically maybe 15 minutes before the bus was leaving to go to the gym, he asked if he could stay back at the hotel because he just really wasn’t feeling well, didn’t even think he could give it a shot with regard to just getting over how his body felt, and obviously, ‘yeah let’s stay back, let’s get you healthy,' " White said.

Missing the game at UT didn’t affect Mann receiving recognition for his play this season, however.

He was named to the eight-man All-SEC first team Monday, while junior forward Colin Castleton was named to the second team, accentuating Mann’s impressive turnaround following a subpar freshman campaign. 

As has been the case throughout his time at UF, White made sure to break the news to him. 

“My first reaction was just ‘wow.’ " Mann said. "Just coming from where I was last year, the situation I was in last year, it was just a great award. I was just lost for words, really it was just wow.”

Then the head coach, the one keen on resting his players before the SEC Tournament, gave Mann the current company line: get back to work.

Florida’s loss at Tennessee not only showed how fatigued the Gators are — it also embodied why this team needs Mann to maintain his upward trajectory rather than let complacency creep in after commendation. 

“In terms of the All-SEC selection, he and I had a conversation in confidence because I wanted to prepare him for what was coming, and in my opinion, the best ways to handle that, and I’m sure he’s done that well. These past 12 or 14 months, he’s been pretty locked in and he’s been really mature about a lot of the stuff coming at him, and it’s why he’s playing well,” White said of Mann.

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

Anthony Duruji   F  6-7    220   R-Junior     5.9 pts / 4.3 reb

Colin Castleton  F   6-11 231   Junior           12.7 pts / 5.7 reb

Tyree Appleby    G  6-1   180   R-Junior        11.2 pts / 3.2 reb / 3.4 ast

Noah Locke       G  6-3    203   Junior            10.5 pts / 2.4 reb

Tre Mann           G  6-5    190   Sophomore   15.0 pts / 5.7 reb 

Vanderbilt

Clevon Brown        F 6-8      232     Senior        3.1 pts / 2.5 reb

D.J. Harvey           G  6-6      235    Senior         5.6 pts / 2.6 reb

Jordan Wright       G   6-5      226   Sophomore   9.1 pts / 4.6 reb

Scottie Pippin Jr.  G    6-1      170   Sophomore   20.6 pts / 2.8 reb / 4.9 ast

Maxwell Evans    G     6-2       190  Senior            8.5 pts / 3.1 reb 

Notes: Noah Locke is the only player appearing for Florida in this year’s SEC Tournament who has prior experience playing in the event. Only Locke and Keyontae Johnson remain from UF’s 2019 semifinal appearance after knocking off top seed LSU ... No starting five has started more than four games together for UF, which has used seven different starting five combinations this season ... The Gators finished the regular season leading the SEC in free throw percentage (.753, 43rd NCAA), field goal percentage (.470, 46th NCAA) and 3-point field goal percentage (.355, 88th NCAA). Florida was the last team to lead the SEC in all three shooting percentage categories for an entire season (2005-06). ... Vanderbilt is without the SEC's leading rebounder — Dylan Disu had knee surgery late last month.

— Graham Halll