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Florida vs. Xavier, Game Thread: Gators go hooping on Thanksgiving

The Gators and Musketeers meet in the first round of the Phil Knight Invitational.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start by saying I don’t like Florida playing on Thanksgiving.

For you, Florida fan who does not have a contractual obligation to write about such a game, contests like today’s against Xavier in the Phil Knight Invitational — the PK85, if you’re nasty — this is a thing you can put on the TV during a tryptophan haze, a diversion from family squabbles or an excuse to not play with the kids.

It’s work for me. And, yeah, it’s work for the athletes and coaches and so on who are involved, too, even if it is a privilege to go see Portland and drool over cool Nike shoes and wear black uniforms and not be in 80-degree weather for one damn week. You may be entertained; other people are laboring. After a couple of years off from this, thanks to a pandemic and participation in a shorter, two-game tournament last year — one that Tyree Appleby capped with an awesome buzzer-beater — Florida is now back to being a Thanksgiving fixture alongside the fixings, and, well, I’ve been more excited about other games.

But it’s also true that Florida playing recent rival Xavier — a very good team just outside the Power Five that doesn’t have the same brand name as Florida, and is thus the sort of team Gators fans will loudly assert that the Gators “should” beat without giving them much credit for actually doing so — also doesn’t really move the meter. These teams played a mostly-spirited NIT game a year ago, with Xavier winning en route to claiming the NIT title, and contested another good game in Cincinnati about a decade ago, but there is not the sort of history that Florida has with, say, Butler or Gonzaga surrounding this game.

Xavier has historically also been, to be kind, a boring and uninspiring sort of good for those outside the fan base. The Thad Matta and Sean Miller and Chris Mack eras — or the first one for Miller, anyway — featured a lot of very good teams but few dominant, conquering ones: Three Elite Eight trips since 2004 came from teams with No. 3, No. 7, and No. 11 seeds, but Xavier squads with No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the 2018 and 2016 NCAA Tournaments failed to make the Sweet Sixteen. The last three NCAA Tournaments happened without the Musketeers in the field, which is why Travis Steele is no longer their head coach.

Miller is back now, after a sweaty, greasy tenure at Arizona that nevertheless featured some great Wildcats squads, and early returns are decent. Xavier is 3-1 with double-digit wins over some non-noteworthy mid-majors, and scared Indiana last Friday, rallying back from 78-70 to lose 81-79. Tall and skilled Jack Nunge, who had 12 points, eight boards, and four assists in a devastating 19 minutes against Florida last March, is back and serves as a versatile terror, and the cast of returnees around him — plus UTEP transfer Souley Boum — has made this team one that can really shoot.

Florida has Colin Castleton, sure, but has yet to find a shooter that can consistently keep defenses honest enough not to double Castleton — all of Kyle Lofton, Kowacie Reeves, and Will Richard have made four or more threes this year, but only Reeves has made three in a game, and he’s only done that once — and has been unimpressive defensively outside of a thrashing of a severely limited Stony Brook and the disruptive start to its second half comeback against Florida State. Nunge is probably the best big man Castleton will have seen so far this year, too, so this game might prove to be one Florida has to try to win without the 20+ and 10+ Castleton has been capably producing thus far.

But no matter what happens, I’ll be watching, and thinking, and then writing.

Happy Thanksgiving. Go Gators.