Florida Gators men's basketball looks to maintain confident approach against Mississippi State

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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From the jump Saturday against South Carolina, the energy level from the Florida men’s basketball team — both on the court and on the sideline — was ideal.

“I thought the culture in Columbia was terrific,” UF head coach Mike White said. “Our bench was great. It also helps when a couple go in for you."

As a result, the Gators (10-6, 1-3 SEC) played with far greater confidence from the opening minutes against the Gamecocks, resulting in the team’s first SEC victory of the season — and first win since Dec. 22 against Stony Brook — following a winless stretch that saw Florida play three top-25 teams to begin league play. 

More Gators:Florida men's basketball finally wins SEC game, downing South Carolina 71-63

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The Florida men’s basketball team now looks to maintain the newfound positive momentum when the Gators host Mississippi State (12-4, 3-1 SEC) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Exactech Arena, a contest that marks the second time in as many weeks the Gators will face the reigning SEC Player of the Week. 

Bulldogs guard Iverson Molinar claimed the award Monday following a dazzling stretch that saw the 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior do it all, averaging an impressive 26.0 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals in Mississippi State’s victories over Georgia and Alabama. 

It should come as no surprise, but the Gators don't plan on taking Molinar lightly. 

“He’s very, very athletic. He’s good with the ball. His ball screen reads are great. He’s the engine of their team,” guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. said. “To me, they compare him to Russell Westbrook, and I can see it. I can see it a lot. So we’re going to have to contain him tomorrow. We’re going to have to get the ball out of his hands as much as possible so he doesn’t have to make reads or even score the ball.”

Regardless, Molinar may very well produce, and Florida’s coaching staff have made sure the team knows it. The key is how the Gators respond to adversity, which White maintains is an area still in need of improvement for a team full of veteran transfers who are used to scoring with far greater ease.

Florida forward Keyontae Johnson noted the team’s attitude can be poor when things aren’t going their way, compounding the Gators' issues. 

“Keyontae made a good point last time we got in a circle and talked some time in the past week,” White said. “As we face adversity, as we have empty trips, get called for a foul, turn the ball over: we've got to get past this pouty mentality at times. I think our bench paid close attention to a lot of that discussion and the fact that the aura has got to be a little bit better and we've got to respond better to adversities throughout the game, because we're going to see them, as is everyone else in college basketball. It's a game of runs and adversities, and positives and negatives.”

In his journey last week from reserve to starter, freshman guard Kowacie Reeves Jr. appears to have embraced the message. The highly rated signee scored a career-high 14 points against USC, including five of UF’s first eight points from the field. Knowing another test awaited, Reeves got right back to work after returning from Columbia. The Gators hope his progression takes another step against MSU. 

“He just really hasn’t had a day, not one time since he’s been here, where he appeared off or distant or not engaged or not working hard. He’s in the gym probably more than anyone on the team,” White said of Reeves. “We got back from that road trip – I went home to see my family before watching the game, but I wanted to jump on SEC Network or ESPN, there were some other games going on that night. Someone said they heard a ball bouncing in the facility. Kowacie came straight to the gym to get some shots after having a really good game. That’s who he is.”

Florida Gators forward Colin Castleton (12) blocks the shot of South Carolina forward Ta'Quan Woodley (55) in the second half at Colonial Life Arena.

Notes: In the win at South Carolina, Florida senior forward Colin Castleton tied his career-high with eight blocked shots, one shy of the UF program record. It marked Castleton’s seventh career game with at least five blocks. ... Due to the rescheduled contest with Ole Miss on Jan. 22, Wednesday’s game with Mississippi State opens a stretch of five games in 11 days for the Gators. ... It’s the lone regular season matchup between Florida and Mississippi State. Since the SEC’s expansion in 1991, the two programs have met just once in the regular season every year but one.

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     15.4 ppg   9.1 rpg

Brandon McKissic G 6-3   185   Gr. 6.4 ppg   3.3 rpg

Kowacie Reeves G 6-6   182    Fr. 3.8 ppg 1.2 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr. G 6-5   205   Gr.  10.9 ppg 3.5 rpg

Mississippi State’s projected starters

Garrison Brooks F 6-9    230  Gr 11.1 ppg 6.9 rpg

D.J. Jeffries F 6-7    215  Jr.  10.4 ppg  4.9 rpg

Tolu Smith F 6-11   245  RJr. 12.8 ppg  7.2 rpg

Iverson Molinar G 6-3    190   Jr.  17.9 ppg  3.6 rpg

Shakeel Moore G 6-1    185   So.  10.8 ppg  3.2 rpg

Wednesday

Who: Mississippi State at Florida

Where: Exactech Arena/O'Connell Center

Time: 6:30 p.m. 

TV: SECN

Radio: AM-850, 98.1 FM

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