As the Florida Gators stride into Auburn Arena on Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN2 or streaming), they do so as a team that could really use the big win over the Tigers that is theoretically on offer.
And they also do so as significant underdogs for good reason.
Auburn is likely the best team that Florida will have seen so far this season, ranked in the top 10 overall in KenPom’s efficiency-based metrics and No. 22 in offensive and No. 7 in defensive efficiency. And Bruce Pearl’s Tigers haven’t gotten their 13-1 record cheaply: Their non-conference schedule featured games against Loyola Chicago, Saint Louis, and UConn, and their only loss came to the Huskies in a double-overtime score-a-thon in the Battle 4 Atlantis that saw five separate players score 20 or more points.
Auburn also opened SEC play by clamping LSU, 70-55, and has allowed just two teams — Saint Louis, barely, and UConn by dint of incredible shooting and a torrent of fouls — to top a point per possession. For a Florida team that has struggled to score consistently, Auburn presents a massive test — especially inside, where Walker Kessler leads the nation in block percentage, and should be one of the few post players capable of matching up with Colin Castleton without any help that the Gators will face this year.
Of course, Auburn also has likely future early NBA lottery selection Jabari Smith in its frontcourt, and a potent pairing of Allen Flanigan and Georgia transfer KD Johnson in its backcourt. Smith is a nightmare cover who has made 44 percent of his threes but can score in multiple ways inside as well thanks to a 6’10” frame, Flanigan is a 6’6” scorer who has a streaky shot, and Johnson is a Russell Westbrook-style bull who simply happens to be a lot shorter. Add those three and Wendell Green’s steadying hand at the point to Kessler’s own hyper-efficient production inside, and Auburn is once again an SEC and Final Four contender.
Florida has, of course, beaten Auburn teams like this recently. The Gators put 114 on Auburn in 2017, beat a 24-4 Auburn team by six in 2018, smacked a one-loss Auburn team by 22 in 2020, and thumped last year’s lesser squad by 17 in Auburn.
The 2019 Tigers that did make the Final Four beat Florida twice, in fairness, but needed an icy shooting night and 17 turnovers from the Gators to win by double digits in the regular season, then had to survive a dogged Florida squad despite a plus-15 advantage in turnovers in the SEC Tournament, with a no-call on an Andrew Nembhard shot attempt at the horn helping preserve a three-point win.
But the differences between that team and the better Auburn outfits — 2018’s and 2020’s — that Florida scalded were not enormous, and Mike White’s teams having gotten the better of Auburn despite what seemed like talent disparities on paper provides at least a little hope entering this contest.
If Castleton can equal Kessler and Florida can both keep Auburn from having a huge advantage on the glass and force some turnovers, there is a path to victory; of those three objectives, Castleton’s might be the easiest to achieve, given how Florida has been hammered on the glass at times this year and not consistently created turnovers with its press.
The Gators also can’t rely on shooting to keep them in games, as their struggles from the arc have cropped up at inconvenient times, and probably can’t win with the careless passing that has sometimes been on display. Their margin for error, so long as Auburn plays reasonably well, is slim.
Florida is capable of exceeding these expectations, and beating this Auburn team, and a win on the Plains would go a long way toward shoring up both its own confidence and its NCAA Tournament hopes. But a loss — maybe their typically valiant but frustrating one — seems like the likeliest outcome tonight.
Hoping for a surprise, accordingly, seems like the right stance.