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Tuesday, March 05, 2024

The road to redemption goes through Tampa

The Gators look to make final March Madness surge at the SEC Tournament

Mike White leads a team huddle Feb. 19. His Gators face the Texas A&M Aggies Thursday in the SEC Tournament.
Mike White leads a team huddle Feb. 19. His Gators face the Texas A&M Aggies Thursday in the SEC Tournament.

12 blemishes stain the Florida men’s basketball team’s record. 

While an embarrassing home loss to Texas Southern was undoubtedly the Gators’ low point of the season, another defeat at the hands of a Lone Star State team has left a sour taste in their mouth. 

A single point decided the game between the Gators and the Texas A&M Aggies Feb. 15. With 1:44 left to play in the contest, UF guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. hit a clutch 3-pointer to push Florida ahead by four, 55-51. 

After that shot, the Gators wouldn’t see the ball drop through the net again. 

Texas A&M guard Wade Taylor IV clinched the win with three swishes from the free-throw line after a monumental collapse by Florida, including a costly foul by Fleming. 

“I think we should have won that game,” said Colin Castleton, who was named second team All-SEC Tuesday, earning conference honors for the second-consecutive season. 

Florida’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker said the loss in College Station, Texas, dwells in his mind. He matched 15 points with 15 rebounds that February night, but nevertheless carries the defeat on his shoulders. 

Luckily for him, and his team, they get a chance to make things right Thursday. 

Day two of the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Florida, will begin with a showdown of the No. 8 seed Gators (19-12, 9-9) and No. 9 seed Aggies (20-11, 9-9). Both teams, along with Louisiana State, Alabama and South Carolina, were part of a five-way tie for fifth in the final SEC regular-season standings.

“Our guys know what we have to do,” UF head coach Mike White said. “But, we have to do it. Talk about it a bit less.”

Heading into tournament play, where you win or go home, Florida’s anchor, Castleton, is worn down and his mid-season shoulder injury continues to linger. The senior didn’t practice Tuesday, according to White, due to an illness that puts his status in question. 

“[Castleton] is incredibly physically tough,” White said. “He's had a really good run, continues to improve, and hopefully he's got much more basketball ahead of him here in this season. I know he’ll leave it out there on the floor.”

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The Gators travel south to Tampa having lost two of their last four. Florida’s trajectory was sky-high after knocking off then-No. 2 Auburn, but ensuing home matchups against ranked opponents gave UF fits. 

Arkansas strolled into the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Feb. 22 and stole any and all momentum the upset of the Tigers could’ve given the Gators. All-SEC first team selections JD Notae and Jaylin Williams lit it up for the Razorbacks, combining for 37 points and 16 rebounds. Castleton’s career-high 29 points were wasted as then-No. 18 Arkansas defeated Florida 82-74.

Road wins over conference-bottom-feeders Georgia and Vanderbilt softened the incoming blow of SEC Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe and then-No. 6 Kentucky. 

The Wildcats ended the Gators regular season with a demoralizing loss. UK swept the season series with Florida, averaging a margin of victory of 14.5 points. Tshiebwe dominated both matchups, clinching two of his astonishing 25 double-doubles this season against UF. He averaged 27 points and 16.5 rebounds in his two bouts with the Gators. 

An area of emphasis for Florida has been rebounding. 

The Gators have been outworked on the glass in six of their last seven games. The last time UF won a battle on the boards was against the Aggies. With improved efforts against Kentucky Saturday, the Wildcats only outrebounded the Gators by one compared to 16 when the teams met in Lexington, Kentucky. 

“You can’t just be better at one thing the next game and take a backseat with something else,” Castleton said. “Our transition defense was horrendous. There were some things that we just didn't do well at, so you got to be able to bring it to win games.”

A .500 conference record has Florida teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble. 

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi released his updated projections Tuesday morning, still placing the Gators in his next four out. The team right next to them, Texas A&M. 

The loser of Thursday's second-round matchup will more than likely kiss their March Madness dreams goodbye. Tipoff is set for noon inside Amalie Arena and the winner will await a meeting with top-seed Auburn Friday. 

The pressure is dialed up, can Florida handle it? 

Contact Joseph Henry at Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.

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Joseph Henry

Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper. 

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