Gators eager to get back on the court in SEC opener against Alabama

Let’s try this again.

The Gators were scheduled to open their conference slate with a road game at Ole Miss last Wednesday. Due to some positive COVID-19 tests within the UF program, however, the game was postponed before the Gators boarded their flight.

That postponement, along with regularly scheduled week-long breaks for Christmas and New Year’s Day, created an unusually long period of time without a game.

When Florida (hopefully) tips off SEC play against No. 15 Alabama in the O’Connell Center on Wednesday evening, it will be their first game in exactly two weeks. They haven’t gotten a whole lot of practice in, either.

Though the Gators (9-3) might not be as sharp or as well-conditioned as they would like to be against a top-25 opponent, they’re excited to get back on the floor and restore some normalcy to their lives.

“I think everybody is ready,” center Colin Castleton said. “We’re excited. We’ve had a couple of good days of practice just getting ready for Bama. They’re a really good team. They have a lot of weapons, but I think we’re going to play pretty well. Just got to come out fighting.”

Castleton is actually appreciative that the outbreak happened when it did in a way. With COVID causing all kind of havoc in professional and college sports, an outbreak within the Gators’ program seemed inevitable.

Fortunately, it happened to them during a stretch where they only had one game scheduled. They can work around that. Things would’ve gotten far messier if they had experienced an outbreak during the heart of their SEC schedule or during the postseason. The hope is that they’ve gotten this out of the way early and can focus on just winning games from here on out.

“It’s the world we’re living in right now,” he said. “So, you kind of just understand that and just move on with it, but I definitely have thought about that, that we kind of can get it out of the way right now instead of in the middle of the SEC season where games are back-to-back, you don’t have any off days and it’s a lot more hectic. So, I think getting it out of the way definitely helped a little bit, but you can’t get days back. So, we got those days off, and we’ve just got to move on and get ready, which we did.”

Coach Mike White said that the last 10 days or so have been chaotic. Guys would come and go from practice every day due to the virus or other ailments. They thought that they’d get a player back on a certain day, and then something would pop up to keep that from happening.

They’ve had a majority of their team back together since Saturday, but they still weren’t at full strength as of Tuesday’s practice.

White’s had to strike a delicate balance in practice over the last few days. On one hand, some of the guys haven’t played basketball in a week, and COVID is a respiratory illness, so he wants to gradually ease their way back into things for their own safety. On the other hand, they’re going to play a very good Alabama team on Wednesday, so he doesn’t want to take practice so lightly that they’re unprepared and out of shape.

He’s leaned on the medical expertise of longtime team trainer Dave “Duke” Werner to formulate his practice plans.

“He’s done a wonderful job for a long time around here, especially for this past couple crazy years,” White said. “He’s really the guy I lean on the most. We try to get to our guys’ wind a little bit, but we’re also very careful. It has to be a gradual process. Again, you’re dealing with illness, but you’re also dealing with some of these guys have gone seven, eight, nine days without even getting in a stance.

“So, soreness is an issue, of course. We’re evaluating them in drills and in competition. We’re trying to sub a lot, as we can get a better, clearer picture as to where guys stand physically and mentally. And then, running some sprints occasionally, it gives you a decent gauge as well. So, we’re like a lot of other teams. We’re not where we want to be right now, but, hopefully, we can get back to tip-top shape pretty soon here.”

Alabama (10-3, 1-0 SEC) isn’t the ideal opponent for the Gators to face in their first game in 14 days. Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats loves to play at a breakneck pace, with a ton of transition layups and three-pointers and almost nothing in between. The shot clock might as well not exist when they have the ball.

That kind of tempo can wear a team down even when they’re in midseason form. Keeping up with them could prove especially daunting for a team trying to work its way into game shape again.

Offensively, the Tide are once again very backcourt-dominant. Jaden Shackleford leads them with 16.5 points per game and is shooting better than 39 percent from deep. Point guard Jahvon Quinerly is averaging 14.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. Keon Ellis is their only other player averaging double-figures in scoring at 12.2 points per game, and he also leads them with 6.7 rebounds per game.

Alabama ranks second in the SEC in scoring at 82.2 points per game and third with a 46.9 field goal percentage. They’re playing at the 31st-highest tempo according to’s rankings, and they’re launching more than 29 three balls per game. They’re only connecting at a 32.8 percent clip, though, which is tied for fifth in the conference.

“They’re probably one of the fastest teams in the country, probably one of the fastest teams we’ll play,” Castleton said. “They get up and down really quick. They’ve got 3-4 really good guards who leak out and just push in transition. Their coach just gives them a lot of freedom to handle the ball and do what they want with it, so we’ve got to be aware of that and just be connected on the defensive end because they’re like lazar bolts. They just go, and they take off.

“So, they get a lot of layups off your misses, and they’re a really good three-point shooting team. That’s what they focus on; that’s their priority. So, we’ve got to limit those as best as possible, which we’ve been doing.”

Their athleticism in the backcourt doesn’t just show up on offense, though. They’re only giving up 42.5 percent shooting, including 29.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Alabama won the SEC regular season and tournament championships last season and advanced to the Sweet 16 in March. They’ve played the nation’s toughest schedule so far this season and have secured marquee wins against Gonzaga, Houston and Tennessee.

So, yes, the Gators will face a tough challenge on Wednesday night. But, after what they’ve been through over the last week or so, they’re excited for the opportunity to play a game again.

“Very, very talented, terrific spacing, really good passing team, a team that won a bunch of games last year and has a chance to do the same thing this year,” White said. “Defensively, very, very good. Arguably one of the best backcourts in the country. I don’t know how they’re not in the argument; I’m assuming that they are. Probably as good as anyone out there.

“We’ve got to be really sharp in a lot of areas. It’ll be really interesting to see at that first media [timeout] just to evaluate where we’re at. I say it all the time, huge challenge but a great opportunity at the same time. Our guys, I’m sure, will be excited at the tip to get going.”

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.