What a difference a week can make.
Seven days ago, Florida was riding high off of an 83-79 win over the highly-touted LSU Tigers and faced an opportunity to climb to the top of the SEC standings with a victory at Alabama.
Subsequent blowout losses against the Crimson Tide and Kentucky at home Saturday changed the season’s trajectory. In a conference with few quality opponents and devastating losses lurking at each turn, UF’s NCAA Tournament hopes are in serious jeopardy.
Florida has an opportunity to right the ship Tuesday night as Ole Miss visits the O'Connell Center. The Rebels sit at 1-2 in conference play, sandwiching an impressive win against Auburn between two definitive losses versus Alabama and LSU.
On paper, Ole Miss mirrors the Kentucky team that gave Florida fits at the weekend, complementing an elite defense with a sub-par offensive game and tortoise-esque tempo.
The Gators must improve their shooting, as 37% from the field won’t beat many strong teams, but a focus on these key areas should see a return to winning ways.
Florida has been bitten by a bit of a turnover bug since the start of conference play. UF has averaged more than 14 giveaways in that stretch and committed 16 in its loss Saturday.
The Rebels are a tough matchup in this regard, as their staunch defensive record is predicated on an ability to force turnovers. KenPom lists Ole Miss ninth in turnover percentage, with opponents coughing the ball up on more than a quarter of their possessions.
Rebel guards Devontae Schuler and Luis Rodriguez are the biggest pick-pockets on the roster, each averaging two steals per contest. Ole Miss also ranks 12th in non-steal turnover percentage, demonstrating effective team defense and an ability to force turnovers in a number of ways.
Too many costly turnovers, especially live-ball giveaways to Schiller or Rodriguez, could create an insurmountable deficit for the home team Tuesday.
Junior Colin Castleton has embraced the “new year, new me” mantra in ways most could only dream of, becoming a revelation for the Gators in 2021.
The Michigan transfer has averaged more than 15 points per game in conference play despite a meager offensive output against the Wildcats. Castleton’s breakout game came against an undersized Vanderbilt team, and the DeLand, Florida native should reap similar rewards against the Rebels.
Ole Miss’ starting center stands at just 6 feet, 8inches, a full 3 inches shorter than Castleton. UM has a taller option, 6 foot, 11 inch Khadim Sy, off the bench, but the senior averages less than 10 minutes per game.
Castleton’s size and skill in the post offers a mismatch against an otherwise stout defensive team.
Coach Mike White’s high-pressure, fast-paced offense requires a deep bench, as logging too many minutes in transition or a full-court press is unsustainable. White emptied his bench Saturday, with 11 players receiving minutes.
However, there was a notable drop-off in quality from the starting five. With a 10-5 lead against Kentucky Saturday, White inserted junior Osayi Osifo and sophomore Omar Payne into the ball game. While serviceable defenders, the two substitutes were black-holes on offense. Wildcat defenders had little respect for the duo and White seemed to have no role for them in the offense, allowing for an immediate 10-0 Kentucky run.
Early post touches for Payne and perimeter touches for Osifo would draw Rebel defenders out and open up opportunities for UF’s more premier scorers.
A loss against Ole Miss Tuesday would likely end up as a Quad 3 loss, an early blemish on an unremarkable tournament resume thus far. This season-defining action will tip off at 7 p.m. at the O’Connell Center and stream on SEC Network.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw