David Whitley: Florida Gators stay hot, but can they keep up the pace against Kentucky?
Florida’s basketball team is in desperate shape. That would normally be bad news for Gator fans, but desperation seems to fit this team pretty well.
It was left for dead three weeks ago. Colin Castleton’s shoulder went kaput, Jason Jitoboh was lost for the year with an eye injury and there was no offensive or defensive consistency in sight.
But what do you know? The Gators have managed to win seven of their last nine games. Their latest was a 72-63 win over Georgia at the O’Connell Center Wednesday night.
If you squint really hard, you can almost make out an NCAA Tournament bid in Florida’s future. The next step is Saturday at Kentucky, not that anyone was thinking about that Wednesday night.
“We were just worried about Georgia,” Myreon Jones said.
Myreon Jones helps save the day
It’s odd to classify a game against the SEC’s cellar dweller as a must-win, but that’s where Florida's at. The season has become a tightrope walk. One false step, and the Gators are goners.
There was the usual wobbling Wednesday, though not at the traditional juncture. Florida had rallied from nine-point deficits or larger to win its past three games.
This time, the Gators almost blew a 16-point lead. Georgia cut it to three points with 2:56 left but couldn’t get any closer. You can question a lot of things about this Florida team, but resiliency isn't one of them.
“We know that these SEC wins are hard to come by,” Kowacie Reeves said. “Everyone is good, no matter what their record is.”
Yeah, the Bulldogs played hard. They almost upset top-ranked Auburn last Saturday. And Georgia reportedly won a national championship in some other sport not too long ago, which must count for something.
But it also had six wins on the year, and zero on the road. It’s average margin of defeat in those games was 14 points. Coach Tom Crean is weeks away from filing for unemployment.
Losing to that bunch would have been inexcusable. Jones largely kept that from happening thanks to a career-high 23 points.
The transfer from Penn State made seven 3-pointers in 11 attempts. Coach Mike White divulged after Wednesday’s game that Jones broke the index finger on his non-shooting hand in late December.
After a long shooting slump, maybe Jones’ finger and jump shot has healed. In other medical news, Castleton’s left shoulder is still functioning, though who knows how long that will last.
Wednesday was his second game back after missing six games. As usual, the 6-foot-11 Castleton was the game’s most dominant player. At least until he reached for rebound early in the second half.
It looked innocent enough, but Castleton grabbed his ailing shoulder and went to the bench. After a quick trip to the locker room with trainer Dave Werner, Castleton returned to the court.
Whatever’s wrong with that shoulder, it seems capable of flaring at any second. An optimistic Florida fan might be confident Castleton will hold it together, and Jones will stay hot, and the Gators will start putting two halves together, and this death-defying march to the postseason will roll on.
A realistic fan doesn’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, much less that it plans to leave an NCAA bid under White’s pillow.
Challenging stretch starts at Kentucky
After starting 0-3 in the SEC, the Gators are now 6-5 in the league and 16-8 overall. But they are 1-5 in Quadrant 1 games, which count the most with the tournament selection committee. And the current winning streak was largely built on SEC weaklings.
“We’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do,” Jones said. “We know that.”
Next up — Kentucky at Rupp Arena. That’s followed by a road game against Texas A&M, then home games against Auburn and Arkansas.
Things could get really desperate, but what else is new?
Considering where they were a few weeks ago, the Gators have put together a nice high-wire routine. They'd better have that act together, because the tightrope is about to get a lot more slippery.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley