Florida Gators basketball team gets shot at redemption vs. Auburn, but it won't be easy

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Its NCAA Tournament hopes dwindling, the Florida men’s basketball team must move past another painful loss and on to a highly ranked opponent, No. 2 Auburn. 

The Tigers and Gators tip-off at 2 p.m. in the Exactech Arena, giving UF an opportunity to secure just its second Quadrant 1 victory in 10 tries this season. There’s work to be done, not much time left to do it, and the Gators know it.

“I do want to come out with a lot of energy against Auburn,” guard Niels Lane said. “Especially because they’re a highly ranked team.” 

Back on Jan. 9, in the program’s second conference game of the season, the Gators suffered a 12-point defeat at Auburn, and the losses didn’t end there. 

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Rebounding from tough losses

Fortunately, Florida has made great strides when it comes to post-defeat recovery, said coach Mike White.

“We’ve taken a couple of losses really hard. We didn’t respond well early in the year. One in particular, our first one at Oklahoma, I’ll never forget that. It was odd how emotionally distraught we were. This team didn’t handle losses well early,” White said. “We’ve unfortunately lost more than we’d like to to this point, but we’ve gotten better with turning the page and getting back to work.”

White described the team’s practice sessions following UF’s one-point loss Saturday at Texas A&M as “solid”, adding the Gators continue harping on the importance of crashing the glass and winning the rebounding battle. 

Despite each team hauling in 40 rebounds on the night, the Aggies outscored the Gators by double digits in the paint in College Station — not a promising sign for Florida’s prospects against the Tigers’ vaunted frontcourt. 

Led by the duo of Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith, Auburn has arguably the top starting forward duo in Division I basketball as the final stretch of the regular season arrives. 

Kessler leads the SEC in field-goal percentage and blocks per game, while the freshman Smith, who is coming off a career-high 31-point performance in Auburn’s 94-80 victory Wednesday over Vanderbilt, is considered to be a potential top-five selection in the upcoming NBA Draft if he opts to depart after this season.

The Tigers outrebounded Florida, 39-31, and blocked nine shots to UF’s five in the first matchup between the programs.

Despite the presence of All-SEC forward Colin Castleton, the Gators have been a liability in the low post all the season, said White. 

“We’ve never had numbers like this, of course. It’s never been this much of a deficiency. Not even close I don’t think,” White said of Florida’s rebounding woes. “We can’t talk about it more, we can’t film it more than we’ve filmed it, and there’s drills that we do everyday.”

Florida guard Tyree Appleby (22) shoots against Auburn during the first half Jan. 8, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. The Gators will need Appleby in pre-injury form as they face the second-ranked Tigers at home.

Gators need Tyree Appleby 

If they hope to pull the upset at home, the Gators know they’ll likely need Tyree Appleby to revert to his pre-injury form. 

The senior guard has seen his production limited in Florida’s previous two contests, both losses, due to a re-aggravated thigh bruise, and Appleby’s backcourt teammates are hopeful he’ll be back to his old self Saturday.

“It’ll be great, because, even me and Jason (Jitoboh) talk about it a lot, when Tyree is playing well, then the whole team is playing well,” Lane said. “He facilitates the ball, he can score the ball, and he can also defend. So if he’s playing at the same level he was playing at before the injury, then I think that we have a really good chance to pull it out.”

He may not be dealing with a physical ailment like Appleby, but 6-foot-7 senior forward Anthony Duruji has also experienced limited production as of late. He came off the bench for the first time all season in Florida’s loss against the Aggies and played a season-low seven minutes, scoring just two points. 

Duruji, who scored 80 points in the six games the Gators were without Castleton, has scored just 14 points combined since Castleton returned to the starting lineup. 

Duruji’s head coach believes the former Louisiana Tech transfer is trying to do much as of late.

Against a vaunted frontcourt, less may be more when it comes to Duruji’s game plan. 

“I think he’s put a lot of pressure on himself. He’s overly conscientious, I think. He’s a great human being. I think sometimes you overthink some stuff, and we all can do that,and my message to him lately is just play hard," White said. "Just stay in the moment, just think about what your next responsibility is.

"In that split-second moment of the game you’re between the lines, we can’t be thinking about ‘I’ve got to get this amount of points’ or ‘Man, I wonder why I’m not playing real well’. As those thoughts are crossing your mind, we’re not playing the game with instincts and confidence. Fly to the glass, get in a stance, run the lane, block out, close out with your hands up — those are things we need to be thinking of.” 

Notes: Florida has two wins vs. No. 2-ranked opponents in program history. UF topped Kansas in New York (11/29/02) and defeated Michigan State in Atlantic City (11/27/09). The Gators have never beaten a No. 2-ranked opponent on their home floor. ... Auburn’s 12-1 SEC start is the second-best in school history behind the 12-0 start by the 1958-59 Tigers. Auburn and Arizona (12-1) are the only Power-Five schools with one conference loss. ... The Tigers’ 7-1 road record is best in the SEC this season. Auburn will look to snap a 13-game losing streak in Gainesville. Auburn’s last win at Florida was Feb. 10, 1996 (73-70).

Florida’s projected starters

CJ Felder, F, 6-7, 231, Jr.: 4.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg

Tyree Appleby, G, 6-1, 163, Sr.: 10.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg

Myreon Jones, G, 6-3, 175, Sr.: 9.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg

Colin Castleton, F, 6-11, 240, Sr: 15.5  ppg, 9.2 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr., G, 6-5, 205, Gr.: 10.3 ppg. 4.1 rpg

Auburn’s projected starters

Jabari Smith F, 6-10, 220, Fr: 15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg

Walker Kessler F, 7-1, 245, So.: 12.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg

K.D. Johnson, G, 6-0, 204, So: 12.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg

Zep Jasper, G, 6-1, 185, Sr.: 4.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg

Allen Flanigan G, 6-6, 215, Jr.: 7.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg

SATURDAY

What: Auburn at Florida

Where: Exactech Arena

When: 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN

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