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Florida vs. UNF, Game Thread: Can Gators bounce back from rock bottom?

Florida took an astonishing and awful loss to Texas Southern. Dropping a game to UNF would be worse.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, do you remember how bad Florida’s loss to Texas Southern was on Monday?

A loss to North Florida would be worse — if even less likely — for the Gators.

Florida’s latest meeting with the Ospreys — frequent foes from the now idiotically-named ASUN Conference that only kinda-sorta ditched its Atlantic Sun moniker and branding to reflect a geographic spread that now includes Eastern Kentucky and Central Arkansas — on this Wednesday night from the O’Connell Center (7 p.m., SEC Network) will certainly be dominated by talk about and fears of a reprisal of the woeful performance that made the Gators the first victim of Texas Southern, previously 0-7 on the year.

And I wrote on Monday that that performance and result was “a miserable loss, definitively the worst of Mike White’s tenure at Florida and possibly the worst of the modern era of Florida basketball,” so I get that focus.

But Texas Southern was 0-7 more or less on purpose, taking its usual trips to all manner of far-flung and deep-pocketed basketball programs both to make its athletic department budget and toughen up Johnny Jones’s squad; the games themselves being played and the checks being cashed are the objectives of the Tigers’ scheduling, with any wins being a bonus.

And that 0-7 mark wasn’t built entirely on blowouts, either. The Tigers had kept things relatively respectable in most losses, only falling by more than 20 in a trip to Louisiana Tech and actually losing by only single digits to St. Mary’s, Air Force, and NC State, or two teams that have much better players and one that plays at altitude.

Look at it this way: TSU played its season opener against Oregon as KenPom’s No. 239 team, and entered its game against Florida at No. 240, representative of it playing to what analytic expectations for it existed. That Monday upset — and it being lopsided — has propelled the Tigers all the way to No. 194 in KenPom, a truly massive one-game leap. (Florida, by contrast, fell, but only from No. 19 to No. 27.)

North Florida is No. 284 in KenPom entering this game — and it would probably be winless, too, had it not scheduled Jacksonville-area NAIA schools Webber International and Edward Waters for their near-annual trouncings (by 60 and 46 points, respectively) to leaven its own tough schedule.

Most of the reason for that lower standing in KenPom — apart from games against NAIA competition not being part of its data — is that the 8 in UNF’s 2-8 did not look like the 7 in Texas Southern’s 0-7. The Ospreys have played one single-digit game — a nine-point loss to an Arizona State squad that was 2-6 and coming off a 51-29 loss to Washington State before a 69-67 overtime win over Oregon on Sunday — and have been blown off the court in losses to UCLA and Kentucky.

But why those games have been so lopsided has a lot to do with UNF’s best rankings in statistical categories being its marks in free-throw shooting and its opponents’ free-throw shooting: They simply have not been good at anything done while the clock is running. Dead last nationally in offensive rebounding percentage allowed and close to it in offensive turnover percentage, the Ospreys would seem likely to be roadkill if Florida chooses to attack the glass and pressure the ball, and with just a couple of above-average shooting nights against Division 1 competition to their name, these are far from the fabled “Birds of Trey” that coach Matthew Driscoll had in the mid-2010s that could scare even excellent teams with a hail of threes.

That sound familiar? In fairness, it should: Texas Southern has many similar perceived weaknesses, and bad marks in various statistical categories this early in the season is likely very much reliant on strength of schedule to date. Florida is also hypothetically capable of playing the sort of lifeless, punchless, luckless game we saw on Monday night — rolling snake eyes twice in a row is as likely as rolling any two other numbers back to back, right?

But Texas Southern did come in with an outstanding record of offensive rebounding, and that proved no fluke, as the Tigers dominated on caroms and loose balls all night. UNF does not seem to have anything close to a comparative skill.

The Tigers are also fifth in what KenPom terms “experience,” a measure of players’ collective age by class (that Florida ranks 10th in, mind); their seasoning is not just based on this year’s money-making misery tour, but years prior, with a slew of step-down transfers on the roster.

While Florida’s own experience wasn’t enough to prevent it from getting punked on Monday, that was in a game with virtually no experience gap. UNF, though, is No. 353 in the stat, lower than where Florida was in a 2019-20 season that saw Kerry Blackshear and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores figure out (or, arguably, not figure out) how to play together over the course of the year.

Put that all together, and Florida should be able to rebound — literally and figuratively — fairly easily in this game, rebuilding confidence and identity after a shattering loss.

But should isn’t will. And what the Gators do should probably be watched closely to see if their will is where it should be, even if a win comes easily.