The Florida men’s basketball team is at a cloudy part of the season.
NCAA Tournament predictions have emerged, and the Gators are just outside of the conversation.
Florida coach Mike White said he doesn’t make a habit out of looking too far ahead.
But with the Gators reaching a pivotal crossroad, that’s started to change.
“I’ll put it out there,” White said. “Halftime at TCU, when we got off to such a shaky start, I put it out there. I don’t normally do that. I thought it might be a way to motivate these guys … But I said guys, if you want to play postseason, if we want to have a winning record … if you want to have a chance to play in the NIT, play in the NCAA Tournament, we’ve got to win some of these game, guys. It’s not just going to happen if we don’t take it, if we don’t capitalize.”
The Gators one-game relief from SEC play ended in a failed comeback against Texas Christian in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
And though nearly all eight of their losses this season have come to quality opponents, those still aren’t wins, and they do little to help the Gators’ case of making it into the 64-team NCAA Tournament field. Florida’s margin for error is growing slimmer and slimmer with just 12 chances left to pick up formidable wins.
Some Bracketology experts have Florida as the top team in their “First Four Out,” including Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Others don’t even have the Gators pegged in their top 68.
It’s not that White is expecting a newfound sense of urgency from his players. He said he expects that every game, every time they step between the lines of the court.
But since that hasn’t been the case most of the season — most recently against TCU when the Gators missed 15 of their first 16 shots — he’s had to do something to stimulate his team.
“[White] got through guys heads a little bit [against TCU],” freshman guard Noah Locke said, “got guys thinking that we have to play as a team to win. Not think about our personal agendas. Also, we had to play hard, and I feel like in the first half of that game, we weren’t playing with a lot of energy.”
Locke told reporters he normally pays little attention to the Bracketology predictions, but he said lately even he’s had to give the postseason some thought.
Locke is the second leading scorer on the Gators’ roster, averaging 11.2 points per game. And he is one of three freshmen in White’s starting lineup.
The 6-3, 205-pound guard said he and freshmen Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson have quickly matured after being thrust into such daunting roles in their young careers.
“We pretty much sophomores now,” Locke said. “And we feel that we have enough experience to step up and be one of the big factors on this team.”
They’ll get that chance against Ole Miss, a team just as eager for a win as Florida after dropping its inter-league matchup to Iowa State. Then, the Gators will have Kentucky at home before traveling to Auburn and to No. 1 Tennessee.
White said senior guard KeVaughn Allen didn’t play with the same aggression against TCU as he had recently, and the coach still doesn’t know how to get senior guard and last year’s leading scorer Jalen Hudson to translate his confidence in practice to the court come game time.
Hudson is averaging 17 minutes and just 6.2 points.
It could be up to those three freshmen to help Florida clinch a postseason berth. And if that’s the case, Locke is ready.
“I feel like with us playing this amount of minutes, we have to play with maturity as if we’ve been playing on this level for a while,” Locke said. “And I feel like we can do it.”