With road stretch looming, Gators need to win at home
GAINESVILLE — Florida's postseason fate probably will be decided on the road.
The Gators (15-8, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) play four of their final six regular-season games away from home, a tough stretch that begins next week and includes trips to Georgia, South Carolina and LSU. That daunting slate makes this week's games in the comfy confines of the O'Connell Center, beginning Tuesday night against Mississippi, almost must-win matchups for coach Mike White's team.
Fortunately for the Gators, they have been at their best in the O'Dome.
Florida is 11-1 at home, with the lone loss coming against rival Florida State in late December. The Gators have won six in a row since, notching resume-building victories against conference-leading LSU and then-No. 9 West Virginia.
Two more wins this week would make Florida's NCAA Tournament case considerably stronger and give the Gatorsa little room for error heading into a difficult road stretch. And Florida is just 2-6 on the road.
"To have that discrepancy is confusing, but, again, a lot of teams have that on the road," White said Monday. "A lot of teams, most teams, almost all teams in college basketball, just struggle to match the intensity level on the road that they bring at home. But we've done it a couple of times. Not every time."
The Gators played well in losses at then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-15th-ranked Texas A&M. They also beat Ole Miss (15-8, 5-5) in Oxford last month.
"We were terrific defensively at Ole Miss," White said. "It's what you aim for as a coach. Again, we've talked about it a bunch. You're trying to max out. We want to see that defensive performance every night. We've gotten it most nights at home. We've gotten it less nights on the road."
The Gators are coming off their worst loss of the season, an 80-61 drubbing at No. 22 Kentucky on Saturday that was essentially decided in the opening few minutes of the game.
The Wildcats shot 51.7 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3-point range, both season-highs against Florida.
The Gators were dominated by Kentucky's bigger backcourt, with Jamal Murray (35 points) and Tyler Ulis (18 points, 11 assists) outplaying Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen and Kasey Hill.
Chiozza (1 for 8), Allen (1 for 6) and Hill (2 for 7) were a combined 4-for-29 shooting, including 2 for 9 from 3-point range. The trio started the last three games, but White indicated he would likely move away from a three-guard lineup against the Rebels, who have won three straight conference games. So Justin Leon or Devin Robinson likely will return to the starting lineup.
The more significant change might be playing at home, where the Gators have played with more effort and energy and shot better.
"Everybody loves to play at home," Hill said. "You have the crowd behind you. It's just more comfortable. You're home. That's really all I can say is that it's more comfortable and our focus is different. When you know you're at home and you know the fans are behind you, it's different versus on the road. We need to get that mindset on the road, too, to start winning some games."
Indeed, those looming road games likely will determine whether Florida makes the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, winning at home — the Gators also host Alabama on Saturday — can only help.
"I'd be surprised if we don't come out (Tuesday) night and play really, really hard," White said. "That's what's most important, especially with this team. What happens after that, I don't know."