Competition becomes more fierce as March approaches and teams fight to make a name for themselves.
The Gators currently are one of the “First Four Out” of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Florida can build its resumé with a win Wednesday.
The Florida Gators (13-10, 6-4 SEC) will finish their two-game road trip in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, against the No. 3 Alabama Crimson Tide (20-3, 10-0 SEC) at 9 p.m. Wednesday.
The matchup marks Florida’s third time going against a top-five Associated Press opponent in its last four games.
The Gators are coming off a 72-67 loss against the Kentucky Wildcats Feb. 4. UF held the Wildcats to 45.2% shooting from the floor but only managed 41.8% itself.
Florida head coach Todd Golden said the defensive performance against Kentucky wasn’t as strong as expected from UF’s defense, which is rated in the top 10, according to KenPom.
“I have a high standard of what I expect out of our team defensively because we’ve been really consistent with that,” Golden said. “I thought our transition was poor at times. I thought we did a bad job on some switches to prevent penetration.”
Alabama is the only team left in the Southeastern Conference that is undefeated in conference play and at home. They are currently 11-0 at the Coleman Coliseum.
The Crimson Tide won their last game 79-69 against the Louisiana State Tigers Feb. 4.
Led by freshman forward Brandon Miller, Alabama has the ninth-best scoring offense in college basketball, according to the NCAA. Miller averages 18.8 points per game, first in the SEC.
The 6-foot-10-inch forward is a former 247sports composite five-star prospect and 2021 McDonald’s All-American. He’s started every game for Alabama and has scored single-digit points in only one game this season — Dec. 12 against No. 1 Houston.
Miller is a combo forward with tremendous body control on offense, giving him the ability to improvise while driving to the basket. He also shoots 45.9% from the floor and 43.9% from 3-point range.
Florida head coach Todd Golden said Miller has surpassed expectations since he joined Alabama.
“If he’s not the best freshman, he’s one of the best in the country,” Golden said. “I think he’s played at a level that’s allowed them to be a top-five team in the country.”
Alabama’s players’ height gives the Crimson Tide an advantage against the Gators. Nine players on Alabama’s roster are listed taller than 6 feet, 5 inches, including 7-foot sophomore center Charles Bediako.
Despite the height difference, Golden said UF’s strength of schedule has prepared it for the matchup.
Florida graduate student forward Colin Castleton leads the team with 15.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He’s also fourth in the nation with 3.1 blocks per game and 71 total rejections this season.
Golden said he’s been playing like one of the best players in the league. Castleton has developed mentally throughout this season, especially during the year’s toughest moments, he said.
“It’s just hard to take that guy off the court with the way he’s playing,” Golden said. “For him to sustain that level of effectiveness with the number of minutes he’s carrying, and the defensive coverages he’s expected to execute, says a lot about what he's been able to do.”
Florida senior forward CJ Felder is back with the team and will travel to Tuscaloosa Wednesday. He first left the team Jan. 13 due to personal reasons.
With Felder returning to the lineup, Florida graduate student guard Kyle Lofton said seeing Felder with a smile on his face in the locker has lifted the Gators’ entire roster.
“It’s definitely helpful,” Lofton said. “I’m not sure what his deal will be (Wednesday), but hopefully he gets back rolling.”
When scouting the Crimson Tide, the veteran guard said Alabama is a fast-paced team with one of the fastest tempos in college basketball. Lofton emphasized that UF needs to improve its transition defense and force the Crimson Tide to play in the half court.
Lofton also realizes facing Alabama gives the Gators another huge opportunity to get into the NCAA Tournament. This is Florida’s fourth time going against a top-five nationally ranked team this season; it has only won one of the three previous matchups.
The Gators’ last win against a top-five opponent was against No. 2 Tennessee Feb. 1. Lofton said the victory gave Florida the confidence to believe they can beat any team.
Lofton said UF needs to show up in big games to control its postseason destiny with only eight games remaining in the regular season.
“We’re depending on no one else, but ourselves,” Lofton said. “Being in the gym, staying consistent, staying together is definitely key going down the stretch in February.”
The Gators will tip off against Alabama at 9 p.m. Wednesday in the Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Contact Brandon Hernandez at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.