The Stretch 4: Why trying to win at Florida will be 'a monumental task' for Auburn
Auburn hasn't won in Gainesville in 28 years. The Tigers might be (slight) favorites, but this is still one of the toughest games of the season.
Florida HC Todd Golden and Auburn HC Bruce Pearl (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
On Saturday afternoon, the Auburn men’s basketball team will attempt to do something it hasn’t done since 1996: Win a road game at Florida.
The last 14 trips to Gainesville have all ended the same way for the Tigers. And some really good teams have lost down there, too.
The 2022 SEC championship-winning squad led by Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler? Lost by 1, unable to get a potential game-winning shot off at the buzzer.
The 2020 team that finished second in the SEC before COVID ended a potential postseason run before it began? Shot 14-55 from the field and lost by 22.
The 2018 Cinderella story that ended with a league title and a drought-ending trip to the NCAA Tournament? Turned the ball over 16 times in a 6-point loss.
“It's as much a compliment to Florida basketball as it is anything, really,” Bruce Pearl said Saturday, a few hours before Auburn headed down to Florida. “I mean, I've not been able to go down there and beat them at Auburn. It's a monumental task.”
At first glance, this season’s Florida team might not look like the toughest challenge for Auburn, even away from home. The Gators are No. 39 in the NET rankings, having gone 1-7 in Quad 1 games. They lost by 18 to Ole Miss, lost by 19 to Tennessee and fell to Texas A&M last week on a last-second shot.
But Florida has all the respect and attention of Auburn, and it’s not just because Todd Golden was an assistant for Pearl on the Plains.
Florida has a top-20 offense that jumps inside the top 10 in home games, is the 11th-tallest team in college basketball and only trails Texas A&M for the nation’s lead in offensive rebounding rate — the Gators grab exactly 40% of their own misses. And a Florida win would do wonders for its résumé.
“Like I said about Alabama, that was the biggest game of the regular season for us that we've had in a while,” Pearl said. “We had to get that one, otherwise Alabama gets a two-game lead on us, and we don't think we have any chance to catch them. I thought we played with that urgency. I think Florida will do the same on Saturday.
“Our math is so good, and the win could mean so much to get them in a way better position, as far as the tournament is concerned. And I think they're good enough. They've got great guards that can really score it. They're older. They've got a huge, athletic front line. … And I think we can go down there, and I think we'll have a chance.”
Auburn opened as a 1.5-point favorite over Florida in Vegas. KenPom likes Auburn by four points. T-Rank has it as a 3.5-point spread. Haslametrics favors the Tigers by 7.
However, there’s a lot of history going up against Auburn away from home — and Florida is built like a team that won’t struggle with the same things that have hurt opponents during this three-game winning streak.
“The body of our work against the best on the road is still not very good,” Pearl said. “And it’s not good enough to beat Florida, unless we really step up.”
There’s also the rest factor: Florida had its off date in the SEC schedule earlier this week and hasn’t played in seven days. Auburn is fresh off of getting an emotional rivalry win over Alabama just two days before a long trip south.
“I like the bye, and we get one in about a week,” Pearl said. “But, boy, a Wednesday night game and then travel Friday and then playing them Saturday when they haven’t played since last Saturday — that’s quite an advantage.”
So what if Auburn could overcome the tough matchup, pull off a gutsy road win at Florida and get a huge boost in the SEC championship race?
“It would mean the world,” point guard Tre Donaldson said. “… It would mean a lot to, like BP said, go down there and make some history. Our team would really enjoy that.”
For more on this massive matchup between the Tigers and the Gators, here’s this week’s edition of The Stretch 4.