Florida Gators take on No. 9 Auburn Tigers in SEC basketball

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Florida’s start to league play wasn’t auspicious, as the Gators squandered a three-point halftime lead against No. 20-ranked Alabama en route to a double-digit defeat despite a strong performance from senior forward Colin Castleton. 

“We didn’t look at the film too much,” guard Brandon McKissic acknowledged Friday. “Because we didn’t want to beat up on ourselves.”

And with the grueling 18-game Southeastern Conference schedule continuing Saturday at 8 p.m. on the road against a team carrying a 10-game win streak in No. 9-ranked Auburn, the Gators aren’t shying away from the obvious: things aren’t getting any easier any time soon. 

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It’s now or never when it comes to correcting the miscues on both ends that led to Wednesday’s downfall. The Gators allowed 20 offensive rebounds while committing a season-high 20 turnovers in the 13-point loss to the Crimson Tide. 

“Made some mistakes in the first half (against Alabama), of course, and then even early second half and late second half I still think we could have done better,” UF coach Mike White said. “But that stretch of live-ball turnovers, shot selection, transition defense and lack of blocking out was the biggest part of the game. That cost us right there.”

Florida coach Mike White, yelling a play to his team during Wednesday's loss to Alabama in Gainesville, says the SEC is "ridiculous" right now when it comes to talented teams.

While Florida’s production is largely reliant on its veterans, the Tigers have the nation’s fourth-longest win streak behind a trio of underclassmen in guard K.D. Johnson and forwards Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith. Smith, a freshman, checks in at fifth in the SEC in scoring with 15.7 points per contest, while the 6-foot Johnson is tied for second in the league with 30 steals. Meanwhile, Kessler, the sophomore transfer from North Carolina and the reigning SEC Player of the Week, is throwing a block party this season with 59 blocks across the Tigers’ 14 games, good for a 4.2 swats-per-contest average. 

“He is a special talent. He is, I guess they say he’s 6 foot, 10 inches, and he's a two-guard. I mean, he's got a beautiful stroke,” White said of Smith. “It seems like mentally he's kind of a step ahead of where he should be at that age. He's a really good player, but they've got several other really good players as well.”

That they do. In Auburn’s SEC opener at South Carolina, the Tigers got 40 points from their bench before securing the 81-66 win. Sophomore Wendell Green Jr. provided a season-high 22 points in a reserve role, his sixth consecutive game of scoring in double-digits off the bench. 

SEC play may just be getting underway, but early indications are the league’s as deep as it’s ever been, which means that a second half-decline like the one the Gators experienced Wednesday night will more often than not lead to an undesirable result. 

“This league is ridiculous right now. It's - I've been around this league, I’ve said this 100 times, alright, in the past few years, and it gets better every year,” White said, “but I've been around this league for a long, long time, and it's never been this close, not even been this close. And, you know, you can get away against certain teams with some missed hits in the non-conference. Maybe in the SEC 10 years ago. Right now, you can't.”

Florida’s projected starters

Anthony Duruji F 6-7, 220    R-Sr  8.8 ppg  4.3 rpg

Colin Castleton F 6-11, 231    Sr   15.1 ppg   9.2 rpg

Brandon McKissic G 6-3,185   Gr. 7.2 ppg   3.2 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr. G 6-5, 205  Gr.  11.5 ppg 3.5 rpg

Tyree Appleby G 6-1,163   Sr. 9.9 ppg 2.2 rpg

Auburn’s projected starters

Jabari Smith F 6-10, 220   Fr. 15.7 ppg 6.5 rpg

Walker Kessler F 7-1, 245   So. 10.1 ppg 7.6   rpg

K.D. Johnson G 6-0, 204   So. 12.1 ppg 2.4 rpg

Zep Jasper G 6-1, 185   Sr. 5.7 ppg 1.1  rpg

Devan Cambridge G 6-6, 215   Jr. 7.3 ppg 3.4 rpg

Notes: The Gators are shooting 31.5 percent from three-point land, though the team’s two 4s – Anthony Duruji and CJ Felder – have been effective from long-range this season. Duruji (10-for-22) and Felder (10-for-21) are shooting a combined .465 from downtown. ... Jason Jitoboh has averaged 7.0 ppg. over the last four games, emerging as a solid post presence behind Colin Castleton, who a source confirmed was “banged up” in Friday’s practice session. ... Florida has five all-time road wins against opponents ranked in the Top-10, with the most recent coming on Jan. 7, 2003, a 74-66 win against No. 7 Mississippi State. The Gators are 5-61 all-time and look to snap a stretch of 14 straight losses in such contests.

Florida Gators' Myreon Jones (0) shoots a 3 past Alabama guard Jahvon Quinerly (13) on Wednesday night at the Exactech Arena in Gainesville. The Gators continue SEC play Saturday night with a visit to No. 9 Auburn.

Who: Florida at No. 9 Auburn

When: 8 p.m. today

TV: ESPN2

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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