Florida Gators aiming to avoid pre-Christmas letdown

Tuesday’s game against Jacksonville will test the maturity of the Gators.

The Florida basketball team has struggled to staying focused before breaking for Christmas during previous seasons. First-year coach Mike White is hoping his team can avoid it on Tuesday when it hosts Jacksonville at 7 p.m.

In the last game before Christmas break, the Gators fell 67-61 at Kansas State in 2012 and lost at home 67-66 to South Alabama in 2009. The standout memory came in 2010. Florida came into the game with an 8-2 record and as a heavy favorite against Jacksonville, but the Dolphins left Gainesville with a 71-68 overtime win. After the game, Billy Donovan didn’t hide his frustration that his team was mentally already on Christmas break and not focused on the game.

Tuesday’s game against Jacksonville presents a similar challenge for Florida. The Gators are coming off an important win over Oklahoma State in the Orange Bowl Classic on Saturday, and they’ll get a quick break for Christmas after playing the Dolphins, who come into the game 4-7 on the season. White wants to make sure his team is focused on the right things and even spoke to them about the 2010 loss to Jacksonville.

“We’ve reminded of our guys of that yesterday in film,” White said on Monday morning. “It’s the first thing we talked about before we even got into their roster or their actions. It has to be about us and our mentality. We all look forward to a break. Our guys need a break, but the break doesn’t start until this game is over. We need to handle this situation with maturity.”

The situation isn’t unique to Florida. It can creep up for any basketball program across the country, and it can play a big role in some of the major upsets that occur at this time of the year.

“It’s throughout college basketball this week,” White said. “I think you’ll see a lot of crazy scores this week. A lot of teams will play a game and make you think ‘wow, those guys have checked out and are mentally at home already.’ Then you’ll see teams that play really, really well for whatever reason, you’ll see some upsets.”

The Dolphins start a unique lineup. Kori Babineaux is the only guard listed in the starting lineup. At 6-4, 205 pounds, he still has good size for the position and averages 17.6 points. The Jacksonville starting lineup then lists four forwards around him. Three of the forwards are listed at 6-6 with one, Darius Dawkins, listed at 6-7. Marcel White is averaging 17.3 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds. Dawkins is averaging 15.1 points.

It’s a team Florida is more talented than, but the Gators know they have to take the correct mentality into the game.

“We’ve got to be prepared every game,” White said. “We’re going to treat this like any other game. We know there’s not going to be a lot of fans there, not a lot of energy. We have to bring our own energy. We can’t think it’s going to be an easy game. That’s how you have a dogfight when it’s not supposed to be like that. We’ve got to come out with a lot of energy.”

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