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Thursday, October 28, 2021
<p>Omar Payne</p>

Omar Payne

Florida men's basketball's current three-game stretch -- which started with Auburn on Saturday -- is easily its toughest portion of the schedule this season.

The Gators (12-5, 4-1 SEC) passed the first challenge by dominating then-No. 4 Auburn at the O'Connell Center over the weekend, beating the Tigers by 22 and holding them to their lowest point total of the season (47).

Now, UF prepares for a road test against LSU, the top team in the SEC, before getting a chance at the newly-ranked No. 1 team in the country, Baylor, next Saturday.

The opportunities are there, and Florida took advantage of the first by picking up a 69-47 victory that'll certainly bolster the tournament resume come March.

But now the question is, can the Gators find some consistency and turn that impressive performance against Auburn into a regular occurence going forward?

"That's over," coach Mike White said, referring to the Auburn win at Monday's media availability. "We’ve got our hands full, (LSU's) really good, of course. Leading the league, and as talented as probably any team in the country."

Payne's emergence key to frontcourt success

UF center Kerry Blackshear Jr. wasn't having his best offensive performance against Auburn.

While the big man played a key role in the team's win with 16 rebounds -- tying a season high -- he only shot 4 of 14 from the field.

But that was more than enough thanks to his freshman teammate Omar Payne.

Payne, who came into the game averaging 4.3 points per contest, loaded the stat sheet with a career-high 19 points to go along with 11 boards. He has now made 13 field goal attempts in a row dating back to Ole Miss on Jan. 14.

"I don’t know if he can do much better offensively than going 9 for 9," White said. "His skill level will continue to improve and he’ll continue to work. Defensively, his ceiling is even higher ... He can really move his feet, has great length and just the understanding of how to defend without fouling."

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That type of defense will be essential on Tuesday night in Baton Rouge if the Gators hope to win.

The Tigers (13-4, 5-0 SEC) come into the game with the best field goal percentage in the SEC at 48.1 percent, the second-best in points per game at 79.9, and the third-best in rebounds per game at 40.2.

Payne and Blackshear Jr., among others, will need to be aggressive on the glass to help neutralize LSU's best rebounders in 6-foot-6 forward Darius Days and 6-foot-9 forward Trendon Watford. The tandem average 8.1 and 6.9 rebounds per game, respectively.

Will Florida conquer road woes against LSU?

So far this season, Florida hasn't performed well away from the O'Connell Center.

In four true road games during the 2019-20 campaign, UF is 1-3, losing by an average of 11 points per game in the three defeats.

"I just feel like we have to have a better attitude on the road," Payne said at Monday's media availability. "Road games are really tough. We just got to come out and be prepared for all the challenges on the court."

LSU is 9-1 at home so far this season, but the Gators did upend the Tigers last season on the road in an overtime thriller, 82-77. So the experience is there, and players like sophomores Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson know what it takes to steal a victory at the Maravich Center. But a young squad will be challenged by a Tigers team that starts four players averaging double figures in scoring, including star guard Skylar Mays (15.9 PPG) and forward Emmitt Williams (13.4 PPG).

"If we play really well – we’re going to have to play really well – it should be a really good game," White said. "Hopefully that’s the case where you just have a chance late in these road games in league play but we’re going to have to play well.”

Follow Evan on Twitter @evanmplepak and contact him at

Omar Payne

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