#15 Florida Gators (20-5, 10-2 SEC) @ Auburn Tigers (16-9, 5-7 SEC)
Tuesday, February 14, 2017; 7 p.m.
Auburn Alabama, Auburn Arena
TV: SEC NETWORK
This Gator team has traveled more than most this year having to start the season on the road as the O’Dome was being renovated. So playing on the road isn’t the biggest obstacle to overcome. Over the last six games, the Gators are playing their best basketball of the season and head coach Mike White likes where they are at heading down the stretch.
One thing he and his staff have done is try and make sure the guys have some legs left with all the travel time involved.
”I think we're in a good place right now,” White said in front of the Florida media on Monday. “All of that can change with how you play, of course. We haven't practiced too long. We've tried to keep that in mind. We've done a lot of traveling. We've got more traveling right around the corner, so we've tried to go hard but go quick in terms of practices and in terms of film and the whole deal. I know we're going to have to muster up a lot of energy this week on the road."
White says his team has matured a great deal this year because of all the road travels early in the season.
"I just think we're a pretty good team,” he said. “We've learned how to become pretty good at home, but because we're pretty good, we're able to take care of business on the road early. I think other than just being a pretty good team we're a little bit older, and I think that helps. And then also all of our experiences away from home out of necessity in the fall, I think, have helped us.”
If the Gators are to win Tuesday they will likely need a strong game from their guards. One that has had a really good year, but struggled Saturday against Texas A&M at home is senior Kasey Hill. White isn’t too concerned about the one game lapse.
“Kind of the outlier there,” White said. “Just that game was a little bit out of the norm for him because he has been very consistent. I think he told one of my assistants yesterday, he’s probably overly comfortable in warmups and didn’t quite possess that edge that he’s had here, of late, that you’ve got to have. He knows that. He’s a senior. I think he’ll bounce back. I don’t know how well he’ll play (Tuesday) night, but I think he’ll be really locked in, and he’ll give it a go.
One that did step up was junior center John Egbunu. Egbunu had a double-double scoring 11 points and hauling down 10 rebounds in the contest. White is still looking for some consistency from Egbunu.
"I'd like for him to do exactly what he did last game every game,” he said. “He was really good. Just played within himself, played with poise. They threw a couple doubles at him, and Auburn has done that a little bit here as of late. I don't know if they'll do that with John or not, but he's got to continue playing with poise when he's in a crowd -- not press, not force the issue, make good decisions. He can be very emotional, and sometimes that's a positive for him, but sometimes offensively it can be a detriment to all basketball players. You've got to let it come to you.
“I like his tempo when he had the ball. That's part of being poised, which in my opinion leads to a higher conversion rate. I liked his body language at the foul line the other day. He was in a good rhythm and he probably feels good about the way he's defending as well -- defended ball screens at a high level the other day, defended the glass well and sometimes that carries over to having more confidence offensively."
The Match Up…
The Tigers are a team that likes to get up and down the floor and love to shoot from beyond the arc. Led in scoring by freshman Mustapha Heron (15.3 ppg), the Tigers also get double digit scoring from freshman guard Jared Harper (12.3 ppg) and freshman forward Danjel Purifoy (11.5 ppg). A team that starts four freshmen is under a rebuild by head coach Bruce Pearl who is bringing in plenty of talent to the plains.
“Even more talented, even deeper, better defensively,” White said when comparing Auburn to their teams of the past. “They're very, very dangerous. They shoot 38 percent from three in league play and they've got seven guys that can make 3’s. Anytime you're playing a team like that, you better be aware and on it defensively in defending that line. And then they've got a young big (Austin Wiley) who's emerging, getting better and better, too, who demands some respect on the interior. And then defensively they're block and steal numbers are very high, among the league leaders in both of those categories as well. So it's not like you're playing a one-dimensional team. They're really athletic. They're very deep. They play hard, so we've got to play well.”
Heron is a good one.
“Super talented,” White said of the freshman. “Scores at all three levels. Can go get his own shot. Big and strong. Beautiful stroke. Can score on isolations. Can score on ball screens. Gets to the offensive glass. Can guard the ball. Good rebounding guard. He’s really good.”
The Gators have played plenty of teams that like to run and White expects that of his team as well. Auburn is one of those teams and they are going to have to be ready for the fast pace.
“We’ll do what we do,” he said. “Offensively our tempo is one of the fastest in the league. Their tempo offensively and defensively is very, very fast, of course, they want to turn you over. They throw different looks at you, of course, with baseline and sideline out of bounds coverages, they’ve always been really successful in those areas.
“We’re OK with tempo. Some of our best games, performances this year, have been a little bit faster. But there are going to be some times, as well. I’m sure where we’ll want to slow down a little bit offensively.”