One of the — perhaps few — positive constants about Mike White’s tenure at Florida was his teams giving Auburn, and by extension Bruce Pearl, hell.
Florida went 6-3 against Auburn over White’s seven seasons in Gainesville, recording more wins by 17 or more points (four) than losses, and went 6-1 against Auburn teams that did not make the Final Four. Even last year, when Florida’s season went sideways, the Gators’ biggest win came over an Auburn team that had previously scalded it behind Jabari Smith, with a final defensive stand earning a 63-62 home triumph.
If Todd Golden had no connection whatsoever to Pearl and Auburn, the Gators’ fortunes against the Tigers would be a lens with which to examine comparisons and contrasts during his tenure.
But he does, as a former Auburn assistant under Pearl — who was only a full bench coach there for the first White-over-Pearl Florida-Auburn game, a 95-63 pounding in 2016, in fairness — who credits the perpetually perspiring, often outspoken coach as a mentor. And so, fair or not, you can count on the Florida-Auburn games with two different colored surnames to be magnified, at least on the Gators’ side.
Wednesday night’s clash in Auburn inaugurating SEC play for both teams makes this one big for this season, too. Auburn has compiled a fine 10-2 record in non-conference action that should portend SEC contention and an NCAA Tournament berth for these Tigers; Florida’s 7-5 mark lacks a single win over a Tournament-caliber team, and its four losses to high-major foes have all been by three or more possessions, seemingly a clear sign that the Gators have work to do — especially against teams like and probably including Auburn — to make it to March with a chance of making the madness.
The work tonight is likely about puncturing Auburn’s strong defense. The Tigers have been excellent at defending the perimeter, allowing just one opponent to make better than 35 percent from three and none to make more than eight triples on the year, and are almost as good inside, where Morehead State transfer Johni Broome — who picked Auburn over Florida — is within the top 10 nationally in block percentage and anchors a front line of physically imposing defenders.
For a Florida offense that has frequently struggled to assert itself, that’s probably a problem.
But Auburn has been a bad shooting team, with a 6-for-24 night from three helping it fall to Memphis and a brutal 13-for-50 performance from the floor leading to a one-point win over Northwestern, and it coughed up 23 turnovers in its loss to USC. Florida doing well against the Auburn defense is probably more important to winning — the Tigers’ schedule neatly cleaves into 10-0 when holding opponents under a point per possession and 0-2 when not doing that — but there’s reason to believe that the Gators could stick around and lose close rather than large simply because of Auburn missing the mark.
Converting that sort of night into a win has yet to happen for this Florida team, of course. But Colin Castleton’s been very good against the Tigers before, posting games of 22 and 10 and 19 and 8 a year ago, and these Gators have only really been run off the court twice.
And if there’s a bit of whatever mojo Florida had going for it against Auburn under White left over for this year, this would assuredly be a golden chance to make use of it.