Florida Gators look to avoid 0-4 SEC start for first time since 1951

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida forward Colin Castleton, one of the team's bright spots, goes hard to the basket against LSU forward Darius Day during Wednesday's game in Gainesville. LSU won, 64-58.

Florida coach Mike White knows there’s no shortage of confidence on the roster, but that doesn’t mean the Gators are playing with conviction amid an 0-3 start to SEC play. 

Nor has he lost confidence UF will find its way sooner rather than later as the UF men’s basketball team looks to secure its first victory in more than three weeks when the Gators battle South Carolina Saturday at 1 p.m. in Columbia at Colonial Life Arena. 

“We got to believe that we’re ball-handlers, that we’re players,” White said. “We've got to play with a little bit more offensive swagger, as we were early in the season.”

UF jumped out to a 6-0 record through the month of November, the program’s best start in White’s seven-year tenure, but it’s all fallen apart as the Gators have gone 3-6 in the time since. 

That stretch has included an extended break from basketball activities due to a combination of health and safety protocols and the winter break, leaving the Gators win-starved heading into the match-up with the Gamecocks. 

“We just have not found that hurdle that we've jumped to gain some momentum and gained some mojo back. I know it will come. When? I don't know,” White said. “But I've seen this team be a really good team and this is not a team that's not working. It's not a team that doesn't care.”

The latest bit of disappointment came Wednesday when the Gators couldn’t secure the comeback against a depleted yet talented LSU team. 

Florida left 11 points at the free throw line and struggled consistently with offensive execution outside the paint. After having arguably his best stretch of the season on the road at Auburn, guard Tyree Appleby had a forgettable encore against LSU, finishing with a plus/minus of minus-17 in 20 minutes of play. In the second half, Appleby played just six minutes and was benched twice following careless turnovers when the Gators were looking to claw back. Without him, Florida shot 32 percent from the field in the second half against an LSU team missing its top three players either due to injury or foul trouble.

Now, set to face a Gamecocks frontcourt that has given teams fits, the Gators need Appleby, in addition to Myreon Jones and Brandon McKissic, to take greater care of the basketball. After all, it’s not a lack of ability, so expectations remain high for the trio of guards. 

“We've turned it over all year. You know, we're willing passers. We've got creative-passing ability. We've got a number of guys that are average to above-average passers. But that doesn't necessarily mean you're a great decision-maker,” White said. “I'd rather have a guy have three assists and one turnover than eight assists and eight turnovers, right. We've just got to be more sound. And really, you know, those backcourt spots have got to be the most sound, and right now, you know, we're not. We’re not.” 

It’s not all doom and gloom. Colin Castleton continues to be a force in the low post for Florida, and he’s excelling in areas where forwards typically struggle. If UF wants to avoid starting 0-4 in conference play for the first time since the 1951 season, Castleton will need some help from his supporting cast against the Gamecocks. 

“Colin will have to play well, and we're going to have to obviously make some shots around him,” White said. “We've got to make some shots with some courage, we’ve got to step up to the foul line with some courage. We’ve got skilled guys with good strokes, and I believe it will happen.” 

Florida’s projected starters

Anthony Duruji F 6-7 220    R-Sr    9.1 ppg  4.2 rpg

Colin Castleton F 6-11 231    Sr     15.8 ppg   9.2 rpg

Brandon McKissic G 6-3 185   Gr. 6.8 ppg   3.0 rpg

Myreon Jones G 6-3 175   Sr.* 9.9 ppg 3.7 rpg

Tyree Appleby G 6-1 163   Sr. 9.5 ppg 2.0 rpg

South Carolina’s projected starters

AJ Wilson F 6-7 234   Jr. 3.7 ppg 4.2 rpg

Wildens Leveque F 6-10 235   Jr.. 9.7 ppg  5.9 rpg

Jermaine Cousinard G 6-4 211   Jr. 9.9 ppg  2.6 rpg

Erik Stevenson G 6-4 179   Sr.  11.3 ppg  4.7 rpg

James Reese V G 6-4 209   Sr. 10.2 ppg  2.8 rpg

Notes: UF is coming off the hardest three-game SEC-opening stretch in program history, meeting a trio of ranked teams - all in the top 15-- for the first time ever. It was only the fourth time the Gators faced three straight top-25 teams in SEC play and first since Feb. 2001. …Castleton is averaging 20.0 points per game on .618 shooting in SEC action against three top-15 foes. Castleton is putting UF’s opponent in foul trouble and making them pay, drawing 7.3 fouls per game and shooting .750 from the line with 6.0 made free throws per game. …The road team has won five straight in the series, including a pair of Florida wins in its last two trips to Columbia.

Who: Florida at South Carolina

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1 FM