Florida's Survival Guide to the SEC Tournament
Florida heads to the SEC Tournament in Tampa this week needing 2 wins to feel confident in being invited to the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday. The Gators (19-12, 9-9) arrive with the SEC’s longest NCAA Tournament streak, having been invited to the past 4 contested NCAA Tournaments. Florida ranks 2nd, behind Kentucky, in NCAA Tournament appearances this century, having been invited to 16 of the 20 contested NCAA Tournaments since 2000.
Can Mike White and the Gators keep the streak alive with a solid showing in Tampa? It’s certainly possible, as Florida has played most everyone in the SEC close this season and has beaten the SEC champion Auburn, which would await Florida on Friday if the Gators defeat Texas A&M on Thursday afternoon. But Florida is also a flawed team, one that is inconsistent shooting the basketball and struggles to rebound, shortcomings that make an extended stay in Tampa — and a return trip to March Madness — unlikely.
If the Gators are going to survive until the weekend, here are 5 things that must happen.
Colin Castleton plays his best basketball and protects the rim
Florida’s lone All-SEC selection, Castleton finished 2nd in the SEC in blocked shots (behind Walker Kessler) with 61 and 2nd the SEC in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (Scotty Pippen Jr.) with 6.0. Castleton needs to protect the rim and get Florida, which can struggle in its halfcourt offense, to the free-throw line in Tampa. Castleton always contributes on the glass (9.1 rebounds per game), but the real benefit he provides is as Florida’s best defender. If he blocks shots, it steadies a defense that can struggle to defend straight line drives.
The Gators are 5-1 in SEC play when Castleton blocks 3 shots or more.
Florida played without Castleton for 6 games in SEC play, but when Castleton does play and does not register 3 or more blocks, the Gators are 0-8. In other words, Florida goes as Castleton goes. Playing the final games of his Florida career, Castleton has to shine for Florida to dance. That would include getting the better of Walker Kessler for a third consecutive game — a task that’s easier said than done.
Florida needs the good Phlandrous Fleming as a secondary scorer
One key to Florida’s ability to shake off an 0-3 start in league play and get back to .500 in the SEC was the improved play down the stretch from Phlandrous Fleming. The super senior was in double figures as a secondary scorer 5 times from Jan. 29 forward and the Gators were 5-0 in those games. Fleming is also a tremendous defender, which helped Florida erase a late deficit at Vanderbilt last week:
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) March 2, 2022
The Gators need his offense more, however, especially his ability to drive and hit shots in the midrange game. When Fleming scores, the Gators space the floor better and that creates space for Castleton to operate in the post and jitterbug, score-first point guard Tyree Appleby to get into the lane. When those 3 click on all cylinders, Florida can be quite good on offense. Florida finished the regular season ranked 35th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom, 1 of the SEC’s best 5 offenses and a testament to their late-season improvement as Fleming became a viable option.
Rebound as a team
Maybe this sounds simplistic, but here’s the reality: Florida’s first-shot defense this season has usually been solid. Unfortunately for the Gators, they rank an SEC-worst 335th in the country as a defensive rebounding team. It is tough to win when you give talented teams second chances, and second-chance points cost Florida wins in games against Maryland, Arkansas and LSU this season.
Win 2 of those 3 games and Florida heads to Tampa comfortably in the NCAA field. Colin Castleton is a great rebounder (9.1 per game), but beyond him, Florida doesn’t have a solid rebounder, unless you consider Niels Lane, a 6-5 guard with a terrific rebounding success rate, a capable deputy to Castleton. If Florida wants to have a chance to play over the weekend, they have to body up both Texas A&M and Auburn on the glass, and to do that, they’ll need wings like Fleming and senior Anthony Duruji to do better work on the glass than they’ve done all season. Florida isn’t good enough defensively to surrender too many second chance possessions.
The Tyree Appleby experience has to be positive
Tyree Appleby gets a rough beat from Gators fans. There’s a social media narrative that Appleby is “out 0f control” or “turnover-prone,” but the metrics don’t really support that claim. Florida’s senior point guard averages 3.7 assists per game and only 2.5 turnovers, a similar number to Castleton, who handles the ball far less. It’s also worth noting that Appleby has had 3 turnovers or fewer in all but 1 of Florida’s games since Jan. 29 — and the game he had 4 came in Florida’s upset win over No. 2 Auburn, when Appleby poured in 26 points to compensate.
26 POINTS vs. Auburn
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) February 19, 2022
Another reason Florida fans are too hard on Appleby? The Gators don’t have another creator in their offense — a roster construction issue that is Mike White’s fault, not Appleby’s. Florida has to rely on Appleby to penetrate, get into gaps and create stress on defenses. This makes it natural for Appleby to force things at times, but as the numbers show, he’s been solid at avoiding disaster anyway.
Florida needs the Appleby who scored 26 against Auburn, 19 against Arkansas and 21 against Georgia late in the year, not the one who had just 6 points with 0 assists against Kentucky on Senior Day, if they want to pull 2 upsets and earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
If they beat Texas A&M, use the home crowd on Friday against Auburn
A better Florida team (say one with Keyontae Johnson) would have a real chance to win this SEC Tournament, playing just 2 hours from Florida’s campus in Gator-crazy Tampa. A tournament win is very unlikely this week, but if Florida can survive a tough battle with fellow bubble team Texas A&M on Thursday afternoon, they should have a nice home crowd behind them on Friday against top-seeded Auburn. Florida and Auburn have played 2 terrific games this season, and the matchup isn’t a bad one for the Gators, who have used Castleton to great success against Bruce Pearl’s SEC champions.
Beating Auburn twice won’t be easy, but Florida won a tournament in Fort Myers over Thanksgiving playing behind a huge home crowd and if they can keep Auburn close again, maybe their fans make a big difference on Friday. It’s too far to look ahead, but the home-court advantage would grow even more over the weekend, as the locals would undoubtedly show up to see the home state team play on Semifinal Saturday or beyond.
Of course, all this is contingent on winning Thursday afternoon in what figures to be a sleepy arena, playing a Texas A&M team that found its form again down the stretch. That won’t be easy. But bigger, more friendly crowds await and could make a huge difference.