It doesn’t get any easier for Mike White and the Gators.
Florida’s third-year coach will try to right the ship against No. 12 Auburn (24-4, 12-3 SEC) Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at the O’Connell Center. UF (17-11, 8-7 SEC) is coming off its third consecutive defeat, a 62-57 road loss to No. 19 Tennessee on Wednesday night.
Florida fell behind the Volunteers thanks to its worst first-half offensive performance of the season. The Gators were held to 18 points in the opening frame, but put up 39 points in the second half.
“They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country,” White said about Tennessee after the game. “Unfortunately, we had some open threes that didn’t go down, we didn’t convert at the foul line like we needed to and of course, at the rim we continue to struggle.”
The Tigers and Volunteers are first and second, respectively, in the SEC standings. Florida is in a six-way tie for third with Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Alabama.
The Gators face the Crimson Tide on Tuesday and close the regular season on March 3 against the Wildcats.
“The lower half of this league is full of a bunch of good teams,” White said. “I think (the SEC Tournament) will be wide open.”
The SEC’s six-way tie for third place carries significant implications with the 2018 SEC Tournament less than two weeks away. The top four seeds get to sit out the first two rounds of the tournament on March 7 and 8, resting instead until the quarterfinals on March 9.
This only puts more pressure on the Gators to start finding wins late in the season, starting with Auburn.
The Tigers are coming off a 90-71 victory over Alabama on Wednesday, their eighth in the last 10 games. They avenged a 76-71 loss on Jan. 17 to the Crimson Tide without their second leading scorer, sophomore guard Mustapha Heron (illness) and sophomore forward Anfernee McLemore (out for the season with an ankle injury).
McLemore leads the SEC in blocks, swatting 2.7 shots per game.
Auburn got big games out of guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper against Alabama. Brown, the Tigers leading scorer this season, had 18 points while Harper, the Tigers leading assist man, poured in 21 points.
Auburn’s backcourt will be a handful for Florida guard Chris Chiozza, who started to look like his old self against the Volunteers with 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Chiozza had scored in single digits in four of the previous five games and will look to continue getting his rhythm back against the Tigers.
“It’s an incredibly difficult league,” White said. “It’s got tremendous depth.”