Last season, Florida’s men’s basketball team sleepwalked through the beginning of SEC play, starting 1-3.
But this time around, the Gators are 2-0 in the league and playing their best basketball of the season. UF is on a three-game winning streak, averaging 95.7 points over that stretch (though one of those games went to double overtime).
After winning the first leg of a two-game road stretch 81-68 against South Carolina on Tuesday night, the Gators travel to another Columbia, this time west of the Mississippi, to take on the Missouri Tigers at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Florida (10-4, 2-0 SEC) is finally finding its footing on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has been stout all year, allowing 65.5 points per game. Now, it’s paired with a more effective scoring attack.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard is coming off back-to-back 20-point games, and he’s beginning to demonstrate the offensive improvement coach Mike White hoped to see when Nembhard decided to return to Florida for his sophomore year. He’s averaging more points (11.4) and assists (6.1) than he did last year.
Freshman guard Scottie Lewis has also increased his production, scoring 15 in his last two games since returning from a concussion. He notched a double-double against Alabama with 10 rebounds and nearly did it again in the South Carolina game, totaling nine.
But the Gators now run into a Missouri team that plays strong defense, allowing just 57.7 points per game. The Tigers (8-6, 0-2 SEC) have had a disappointing start to SEC play, losing by 12 on the road to Kentucky and by 10 on their home floor to Tennessee.
Missouri’s resume also features a bad non-conference loss against Charleston Southern.
Still, Mizzou has the personnel to give the Gators trouble, mainly in guards Dru Smith and Mark Smith (no relation). Dru leads the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game, and Mark is just behind, averaging 11.1. Both are shooting above 40 percent from the field, but Mark is more dangerous on the outside having made 34 three-pointers this season.
Mark is also Missouri’s rebounding leader with 4.7 per game, and Drew averages 4.4.
Florida will have its hands full on the interior, as the Tigers have two 6-foot-10 players — Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko — in their projected starting lineup. However, neither average more than four rebounds.
UF center Kerry Blackshear Jr., on the other hand, has been a dominating force under the basket for Florida this season.
He’s averaging 14.6 points and 8.7 rebounds and has seven double-doubles through 14 games. Containing him will be paramount for a Tigers team that generally wins the rebounding margin (they’re plus-4.1 this year).
As SEC play progresses, Florida will try to show the NCAA Tournament Committee that its four non-conference losses were the result of a brutal schedule. Road wins against teams like Missouri — which White has never lost to as Florida’s coach — would go a long way to bolster that argument.
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