For the second year in a row, and the third year in four, the Florida Gators are playing men’s basketball on Thanksgiving.
And while I’m grateful for that, I have to say that I find it grating to have to spend time paying attention to sports — even a team I love, and love watching this year — during a holiday. It’s not like Nike ponied up millions of dollars to create a prestigious event that the Gators would be honored to be a p ... oh, it’s exactly that? And one of the games is starting at midnight Eastern?
Okay, I get it.
The Gators will face Stanford at 10 p.m. Eastern on Thursday in the last game of the first round of the Motion Bracket of the PK80 Invitational on ESPN2 — lots of proper nouns there! — and coming off the worst of their three outings this season, a 70-63 win over New Hampshire in which the act of shooting became an exercise in missing.
Florida shot just 32 percent from the floor against the Wildcats, and only about half that well on threes after sinking double-digit threes in two exhibition and two regular-season games to start the season hot. Consequently, Florida never did fully pull away in that contest, leading by no more than eight points at any juncture and needing a 31-for-38 night at the line to hold off what profiles as a middle-of-the-pack America East squad.
That performance was a poor one, especially so in light of the Gators’ awesome showings in their first two games, which each produced more than 100 points and lopsided final scores. And the Gators will likely have to play far more like they did in those first two games to beat Stanford.
The Cardinal are 3-2 on the season, with wins over Cal Poly, Pacific, and Northeastern, a blowout loss to North Carolina, and a brutal loss to Eastern Washington on their record. That’s not a great start to coach Jerod Haase’s second year in Palo Alto, and it has advanced numbers forecasting a Florida win as very likely this evening.
But the Cardinal do have a heck of a frontcourt player in forward Reid Travis, who has scored 16 or more points in all five games thus far, and whose skills as a banger and scorer have gotten him a two-point field goal percentage north of 58 percent and 7.2 drawn fouls per 40 minutes — a colossal figure that spells trouble for Florida’s thin frontcourt, as Kevarrius Hayes will sit for the evening due to a violation of team rules, forcing Gorjok Gak and/or some combination of Egor Koulechov and Keith Stone to try to handle Travis.
Combine Travis’s steady production with putative center Michael Humphrey’s shooting stroke — he’s 6-for-11 on threes this year — and Isaac White’s own 13 threes, and there are bright spots for the Cardinal to rely on and for Florida to harp on. But the Gators simply have more talent and have produced more with it early this year than Stanford has.
And while Stanford has played one of college basketball’s better programs this year, and Florida hasn’t played a team better than New Hampshire, the way the Gators have competed ferociously against big-name teams under Mike White is a positive sign for a big-time tournament.