The biggest game in the SEC on Saturday is an 8:30 p.m. ET tip from Gainesville when No. 12 Auburn visits Florida. Coach Bruce Pearl has done a marvelous job at Auburn this season, and the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 SEC) clinch the SEC regular-season title with one more victory or one more loss by Tennessee. The Vols play earlier Saturday and should win at Ole Miss, but it’s not a sure thing.
So while I’m sure that Auburn would like to lock up the school’s first regular-season conference title since 1999, this game is much more important to the Gators, who have played their way squarely onto the NCAA Tournament bubble on a three-game losing streak (0-3 ATS). They figure to be about 3-point underdogs Saturday.
Florida (17-11, 8-7 SEC) has an RPI of 64 as of this writing, which is about as “bubblicious” as a Power 5 school can get. The Gators have six wins over RPI Top 50 schools: Gonzaga and Cincinnati out of conference – those are terrific victories – and Texas A&M, Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky in conference. UF also has bad losses at Ole Miss and at Vanderbilt.
Bubble-Dwelling Florida (17-11, 8-7 SEC) Really Needs Win Over No. 12-ranked Auburn on Saturday
I don’t believe a below-.500 record in a mediocre SEC would get Florida an at-large berth, and it could be staring at one with a loss Saturday because the Gators finish at Alabama next Tuesday (loss) and home to Kentucky on March 3 (50-50) to close the regular season. The NCAA Tournament committee also puts an emphasis on late-season performance, and this three-game skid is doing Coach Mike White’s team no favors. Losing at No. 19 Tennessee as the Gators did Wednesday is acceptable; falling at home last week to Georgia (which swept the season series) and at Vandy is not.
This could be a trap game for Auburn off its big 90-71 home win over blood-rival Alabama on Wednesday with alum Charles Barkley in attendance. That was the Tigers’ first game since losing sophomore starting forward Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury – he was averaging 7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and was the SEC’s top shot-blocker at 2.7 per game. In addition, second-leading scorer and guard Mustapha Heron sat out with the flu (he should play Saturday). Jared Harper stepped up with 21 points vs. the Tide, and freshman Chuma Okeke stared for McLemore and had career-highs of 16 points and 10 rebounds.
UF, meanwhile, was a 62-57 loser at Tennessee. The Gators shot only 35 percent from the field, 25 percent (6 of 24) from 3-point range and 56.3 percent (9 of 16) from the free throw line. You aren’t beating Wofford with those numbers. KeVaughn Allen, a preseason All-SEC selection, was shutout in 29 minutes. That was his seventh game this season scoring five points or fewer. It’s the second time this season the Gators have lost three straight games.
It’s the only scheduled meeting between the schools; the Gators have won the past 10 in the series but that means little. I do recommend desperate Florida and the points here, though. Auburn, frankly, can afford to lose and it really won’t affect the Tigers’ bottom line. The last time they were set up for a letdown game was last Saturday off a home win over Kentucky, and Auburn was upset at South Carolina, which isn’t as good as Florida. The Gators, despite a 5-8-1 ATS home record, have to have this one and get it.