Ridaught: NCAA tournament hopes fade for Gators

The Florida basketball team will likely miss the NCAA tournament this season.

The Gators are one of six teams with a win in each of the past four NCAA Tournaments, along with Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan, Villanova, and Florida State.

Florida is also one of 12 teams nationally, and the only Southeastern Conference team, to reach every NCAA Tournament in that span (since 2017).

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However, following the loss at Texas A&M on Tuesday, the Gators (16-10 overall and 6-7 in SEC) find themselves in a must-win situation to make “The Big Dance.”

With No. 2 Auburn coming to town on Saturday, Florida desperately needs a Quadrant-1 win after some bad losses this season, including a home loss to then-winless Texas Southern on Dec. 6.

Since a 6-0 start, Florida has gone just 10-10 since November. They’re also just 1-7 in Quadrant-1 matchups this season.

The good news is that the Gators control their own destiny and with three ranked opponents coming up (Auburn, No. 23 Arkansas at home on Tuesday, and No. 4 Kentucky in the home finale on March 5), there’s still hope.

It starts with Saturday’s sold out home game against the Tigers (24-2, 12-1), who have a legitimate chance to win the national title this season.

While Florida has two wins all-time against No. 2-ranked teams (Kansas in 2002 & Michigan State in 2009), the Gators have never beaten a top-2 opponent at home. However, Florida coach Mike White is 4-0 at home against Auburn.

In fact, Auburn has not won at Florida since 1996.

The Tigers are 9-1 in their last 10 games and are averaging 80.3 points per game, while holding their opponents to 69.5 points, which is actually below what the Gators are averaging during their 6-4 stretch (65.9 ppg.).

Florida is a respectable 11-3 at home this year, including five straight wins at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Two things must happen on Saturday. 

The Gators will have to shoot much, much better than their paltry 28.8 percent performance against A&M, and they can’t let potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick Jabari Smith beat them.

Smith scored a career-high 31 points on Wednesday in a 94-80 win against Vanderbilt. 

Walker Kessler (22 points) also had a career-high, meaning Florida’s frontcourt of Colin Castleton, CJ Felder (game-time decision), and Anthony Duruji will have to stay out of foul trouble. 

Duruji, who didn’t start for the first time this season against A&M. may be the ‘X factor’ against the Tigers. 

The 6-foot-7 senior, who scored his 1,000th point earlier this season against Missouri, is coming off a season-low seven minutes played at A&M. He is a critical member of the Gators’ frontcourt, which must play well.

Auburn’s frontcourt combined for 65 points, 18 rebounds, six assists and eight blocked shots against the Commodores.

If the Gators fail to make the NCAA tournament, despite the injury situation the past two years, that could mark the end to White’s tenure at UF.

 

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