Whitley: Gators basketball will go as far as Tre Mann takes them

David Whitley
Gator Sports

Figuring out Florida's basketball team has been about as easy as playing three-dimensional chess while trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. It would be enough to make a basketball Einstein pull out his hair.

The dilemma continued Thursday at the SEC basketball tournament in Nashville. The Gators beat Vanderbilt 69-63, but it was a struggle.

And please don't stop here if you've read that before.

For a team that's certain to get into the NCAA tournament, this season's been one long identity crisis. A lot of that's due to COVID-19 interruptions and having to overhaul the offense after Keyontae Johnson was lost for the season.

But that process began 10 weeks ago. By now, you'd expect to see a little more consistency. Instead, each game is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates.

You never know what you're gonna get.

The Gators celebrate their win Thursday over Vanderbilt at the SEC tourney in Nashville, Tenn. The Gators finished the year 3-0 vs. Vanderbilt, their first time beating the same team three times in a season since doing so vs. Kentucky and Tennessee in the 2013-14 season. It marked only the second time the Gators have gone 3-0 vs. Vanderbilt (2010-11).

That's true, except for one piece. It's becoming obvious that however far the Gators go in the postseason, Tre Mann will have to carry them there.

His heavy lifting Thursday consisted of 22 points, six assists, seven rebounds and coming up big every time Florida needed him to.

"He's playing with a lot of confidence," Noah Locke said. "He could always play this way.

"It's just him going out there with a clear mind and playing his game."

More from Thursday's win:Noah Locke dunks for first time as a Gator in ACC Tournament quarterfinal

And:Missing morning shootaround costs Tyree Appleby a start

That sure beats not going out there due to a pounding migraine. Such was Mann's fate just this past Sunday. He missed the Tennessee game with a blinding headache, and the Gators played one of their more listless games of the season.

It was their second straight loss after three straight wins. They had a four-game winning streak in January and seemed to be figuring things out, then they face-planted with two ugly losses.

Up, down. Hot, cold. Intense, lackadaisical.

The more specific problems are turnovers, fouls and erratic defense. They were all there in Sunday's loss to Tennessee, so much that coach Mike White inserted walk-on Alex Klatsky into the game to try to shame the starters into showing a little more gumption.

If Florida played that way Thursday, it might not see the second round. The thing was, the Gators didn't play that way Thursday, and they still almost got bounced out of the tournament.

Florida played pretty good defense, especially in the first half. It outrebounded Vandy 38-29 and didn't have one of those 12-turnovers-in-a-half meltdowns.

The Gators led by 12 at halftime against a team that had to play Wednesday night.

They'd also beaten the 12th-seeded Commodores twice in the regular season.

So how did Thursday turn into a heart-thumper?

"Coach White told us at halftime we were playing with fire," Mann said.

Vanderbilt was getting open 3-pointers, but it wasn't making them. That changed in the first 10 minutes of the second half thanks largely to Scottie Pippen Jr.

His Hall-of-Fame father was in the stands, but it appeared the old man somehow inhabited his son's body. Pippen Jr. sliced, diced, dished and shot the Commodores back into the game.

"He has got command out there," White said. "Offensively and defensively, he's playing a video game out there. He just sees everything before it happens."

How to watch:Gators face Tennessee in SEC Tournament quarterfinal. Here's how to follow live.

We all saw Vandy take a 55-54 lead with 8:33 left. Mann responded with two free throws, which was a sign of things to come.

His biggest play came with about 90 seconds left when he grabbed an offensive rebound and drilled a 15-foot jumper to give Florida a 66-63 lead.

Mann's a 5-star talent who's endured a lot of growing pain. But he's nearing the end of his sophomore season now. Things are getting less painful by the game.

"Some of it's just simply maturity, physical mental toughness," White said. "He's just getting a little bit older."

Like the rest of the team, Mann's weakness has been turnovers. But Thursday, he played 32 minutes and had only two of them.

What does that mean for Friday's rematch with Tennessee?

"It's not like it's a given he's going to play great against a top-10 defense," White said.

"His teammates have got to play well in addition, and we've got to defend better than we did in Knoxville."

Whitley

In other words, there's no telling what you'll get with Florida. But it's become increasingly clear what Florida's gonna get with Mann.

Namely, a fighting chance.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley