Florida Gators basketball travels to Texas A&M focused on improvement, not NCAA chances

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Florida remained inside the top-50 of the latest NET rankings despite a 21-point loss Saturday at Kentucky, putting the Gators on the precipice of making the NCAA Tournament as the regular season inches closer to a conclusion. 

As the UF basketball team prepares to take on Texas A&M at 7 p.m. in College Station, head coach Mike White has focused the conversation on the team’s improvement rather than the postseason odds. The theory is if Florida emphasizes the former, the latter will follow suit. 

“It’s about growth, man,” White said. “If we’re getting better every day, good things will happen, the results will take care of themselves.”

It’s a message White’s players have heard regularly.

“Our daily message is to get better, it’s growth every day,” guard Brandon McKissic said. “We just try to get better every day.”

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Florida Gators guard Brandon McKissic (23) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Oklahoma State at Exactech Arena.

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Rather than speculate on availability, the Gators (16-9, 6-6 SEC) are concerned with who is able to practice and compete — a list that currently doesn’t include senior guard Tyree Appleby. 

Although he’s expected to travel with the Gators, Appleby has been off the floor and away from basketball activities as a result of a re-aggravated left-thigh bruise suffered against the Wildcats.

“I think there’s a chance he goes, I don’t know for sure. He didn’t go yesterday or (Monday),” White said of Appleby, who played just eight minutes against the Wildcats. “I’m sure Duke will evaluate him at shoot-around tomorrow" said UF trainer Dave "Duke" Werner. 

With Appleby — Florida’s second-leading scorer behind forward Colin Castleton— potentially sidelined against the Aggies (15-10, 4-8), the Gators will lean on McKissic, as well as senior guard Myreon Jones, in the backcourt. Jones competed at the point guard spot throughout preseason camp, while McKissic has significant experience as a primary ball-handler. 

There may be no replicating what Appleby gives the Gators, but someone must step up  if Florida looks to hand Texas A&M its ninth consecutive defeat. 

The moment can’t be too big. 

“It’s next man up. There’s not another choice, but I’m confident in our guys’ abilities if we play with poise and toughness, and make simple plays,” White said. “But if we play rattled ... we’re already a team that, we struggle with turnovers. We’ve gotten better throughout the year, but they force, I think (the Aggies) are second in the country in turnover percentage. They’re really active with their hands, quick, fast team that swarms to the basketball. They just create havoc, they just create turnovers. So whoever we’ve got out there has got to handle the ball with poise and maturity.”

And maybe a bit more edge, which the Gators seemed to lack in the waning minutes against the Wildcats. The outcome all but final, Kentucky competed until the end as Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz converted three-point attempts in the final minute of the contest, pushing UK’s lead from 15 to 21. 

From Florida’s perspective, it was a low point in a game full of them. For a team searching for ways to improve, the last 60 seconds Saturday indicated the Gators need to close games with greater intensity, starting with a quick turnaround in another hostile environment.

“Sometimes you want your guys to be down, you know. I wish we were a little bit more competitive there, I wish we finished stronger,” White said of Kentucky. “I wish that we’d be very frustrated — I wish we were frustrated during the game, to the point that we’d compete at a higher level on the glass. I think our guys understand that we have to be better to have a chance at A&M.”

Florida’s projected starters

Anthony Duruji F 6-7   220    R-Sr    9.3 ppg  4.4 rpg

Colin Castleton F 6-11 240    Sr. 15.5 ppg 8.8 rpg

Brandon McKissic G 6-3   185   Gr. 6.5 ppg   3.2 rpg

Niels Lane G 6-5   206    So. 1.1 ppg 1.2 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr. G 6-5   205   Gr.  10.3 ppg 4.0 rpg

Texas A&M’s projected starters

Henry Coleman III F 6-8   243 So.  10.9 ppg 6.2 rpg

Aaron Cash G 6-6   201 Jr. 2.7 ppg  3.7 rpg

Marcus Williams G 6-2   197 So 8.4 ppg  2.3 rpg

Quenton Jackson G 6-5   173 Gr.   13.0 ppg  3.4 rpg

Tyrece Radford G 6-2   200 Jr. 9.7 ppg  5.5 rpg

Notes: With Florida and Texas A&M’s 2021 game canceled, and Keyontae Johnson and Jason Jitoboh both out for Florida, the Gators will have zero players in Tuesday’s game who previously have faced Texas A&M. ... Jones is shooting 16-for-26 (61.5%) from 3-point range over Florida’s last four games, including his 7-for-11 night against Georgia. … Castleton is eight points away from becoming the fifth Florida transfer to score 600 points as a Gator. He looks to join Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Hudson, Vernon Macklin and Mike Rosario in the club.

TUESDAY

What: Florida at Texas A&M

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Reed Arena, Bryan-College Station, Texas

TV: SEC Network

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