For the Florida Gators, salvaging a season gone sideways with a sensational win or two propelling them to an unlikely NCAA Tournament berth requires no more delay in securing such a win: Either they get it against Auburn this Saturday or Arkansas or Kentucky in the weeks to come, or it’s just not happening.
The good news is that this game against Auburn comes in a Saturday showcase and in Gainesville, where Auburn has not won in men’s basketball in a stunning 25 years. The strength of that streak of futility is such that a couple of the better Auburn teams in recent memory — albeit not the one that made the 2019 Final Four — came to Gainesville and left as losers even with Mike White’s program having to turn to such unheralded heroes as Dontay Bassett (12 points in a 72-66 win in 2018) and Omar Payne (19 points on 9-for-9 shooting in 2020) in getting those wins.
The bad news, obviously, is that this may be Auburn’s best team ever, and it is one that survived Florida’s customary second-half surge in a victory on the Plains earlier this season. Florida shot poorly while Auburn shot brilliantly in that game, sure, but the Tigers also didn’t get much from a foul-plagued big man Walker Kessler or a merely decent matchup nightmare Jabari Smith in that contest, with Kessler mustering just six points before fouling out and Smith chipping in just 13 points.
Yet Florida lost by double digits anyway, with KD Johnson pouring in 23 points and Wendell Green and Jaylin Williams combining for 27 points off the bench to pace Auburn in its 85-73 win. And apart from shooting better — including making more free throws, as the Gators were just 19-of-28 from the line — or keeping Auburn from making shots that included a number of difficult deep threes, what Florida could have done all that much better in that game is unclear, as they fought well on the boards, forced turnovers while keeping their own tally reasonable, and scored fairly efficiently inside.
The simple truth is that Auburn is just better than Florida this year, more talented and deeper and better at the positions where Florida is best. Kessler is one of college basketball’s very best bigs, and should be able to win most battles with Castleton; Smith, maybe the best basketball player not currently in the NBA, has no peer or plausible defender on Florida’s roster; Johnson and Green are both more explosive and steadier than Tyree Appleby even when Appleby isn’t nursing a hamstring injury.
That isn’t to say that Florida can’t beat Auburn. Castleton’s already outfought Kessler once; Smith didn’t ever get fully in gear in that first game. And Johnson going off is probably something that happens once, not twice. If Florida hits a lot of shots — forever a tantalizing maybe for this team, though more possible now, with Myreon Jones heating up, than it has been all year — without Auburn doing the same, this could be close enough for the Gators to sink their teeth in and thrash their way to a win.
It’s just more likely that they won’t — and that this team will once again fight hard but not well enough to win the sort of big game they need to triumph in to play in March Madness.
Proving us and the odds wrong would sure be fun, though...