Men's Basketball

The Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville is set to tip-off on Wednesday — at least for now.

Despite the fear of the coronavirus pandemic bearing down on the country, basketball at Bridgestone Arena will be played as scheduled.

That means the Gators still have a valuable opportunity to help pad their NCAA Tournament resume.

Sitting at 19-12, Florida’s record doesn’t stand out, but its metric numbers are hard to ignore.

According to KenPom, UF’s overall rating is 33rd, its strength of schedule is 36th and its non-conference strength of schedule is 22nd.

Combine those figures with five Quadrant 1 victories, and many bracketologists predict the Gators to be in the 8- to 10-seed range currently.

A productive visit to Nashville could mean a jump to the 6- or 7-seed line, but an early exit potentially leaves Florida sweating on Selection Sunday.

On Thursday afternoon, Florida will be tasked with stopping one of the league’s most explosive players one way or another.

Georgia (15-16, 5-13 SEC) and Ole Miss (15-16, 6-12 SEC) will match up on Wednesday night in the first round with the winner earning the right to play the Gators.

Rebels guard Breein Tyree (19.7 PPG) and Bulldogs forward Anthony Edwards (19.5 PPG) each have the ability to single handedly take over games.

“They’re two of the best individual scorers in the country,” coach Mike White said at Tuesday’s media availability. “Both (teams) are very difficult to defend, and both will be prepared defensively against us.”

UF fared well against the two teams in the regular season, earning a 3-1 record. But the win over Ole Miss was with Tyree out, and both victories over Georgia were comebacks, including the 22-point second-half deficit that was erased at the O’Connell Center on Feb. 5.

If Florida were to advance to the quarterfinal round on Friday, it’d face a team it lost to in heartbreaking fashion earlier in the season.

Mississippi State stormed back after being down as many as 16 to the Gators in the O’Connell Center on Jan. 28 and won 78-71 after shooting just over 60 percent in the second half.

Beyond that, a rematch with Kentucky in the semifinals likely awaits.

UF lost both contests to the Wildcats, with the most recent (an 18-point second-half collapse) being one of the more frustrating losses of the season.

For Florida to advance that far, its defense needs to be consistent. And that’s something White has struggled to get out of his players all year.

“We’ve created average defensive habits throughout the entire year that we saw in the second half of the Kentucky game,” White said.

"I think we've gotten better...but I think that's probably the biggest factor is that we don't have three or four guys super locked in on being the best defensive player they can be."

Perhaps the biggest story, team-wise, for UF is the status of forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. He injured his wrist in the Kentucky game and is listed as questionable for the SEC Tournament.

"Duke (Werner) told me yesterday he was in some type of splint. I'm sure he hasn't even attempted to grab a basketball," White said. "I don't know that KJ plays, we can't sit here and whine about it."

With the question marks surrounding Blackshear Jr., guys like Omar Payne, Dontay Bassett and Jason Jitoboh will likely get increased playing time.

If Blackshear Jr. can't go, finding ways to effectively rebound the basketball will be pivotal if the Gators are to have success in Tennessee.

Follow Evan on Twitter @evanmplepak and contact him at [email protected].

Evan Lepak is a Sports Journalism student at the University of Florida. Evan is the assistant sports editor and is currently covering UF men's basketball. He has been with the Alligator since Summer 2018.