No. 1 Baylor takes on challenge at Florida

NCAA Basketball
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Baylor takes its No. 1 ranking on the road for the first time when it plays Florida on Saturday night in the Big 12/SEC Challenge at Gainesville, Fla.

The Bears (16-1, 6-0 Big 12) are coming off a 61-57 home victory against conference rival Oklahoma on Monday, hours after becoming the seventh different team to move atop the AP Top 25 this season.

Now, coach Scott Drew takes his team’s blue-collar work ethic into a hostile Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

“You don’t have to say much to get your team excited to play Florida,” Drew said on ESPN’s Courtside podcast with Dan Dakich and Seth Greenberg. “Going into the year, most people had them projected going into the (NCAA Tournament) Final Four for good reason — they’re really talented.”

There hasn’t been as much Final Four talk surrounding the Gators (12-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) in recent weeks as a talented but young team continues to develop.

The Gators are 2-16 all-time vs. No. 1 ranked teams — the two wins being a 2000 NCAA Tournament victory over Duke in the Sweet 16 and Ohio State in the 2007 national title game.

Florida also will be aiming to defeat a second consecutive top 5 team at home. The Gators beat then-No. 4 Auburn 69-47 last Saturday for their first win vs. an AP top 5 team since 2009. They then lost at LSU 84-82 on Tuesday night.

Gators coach Mike White said he was unaware of any special buzz around campus surrounding a visit by the country’s top team.

“I wouldn’t know. I’m locked in on hoping we don’t turn the ball over against them, figure out how we can defend our glass, and really get a clean look in the half court. They’re really defending at such a high level,” White said Thursday on the SEC coaches’ teleconference. “I don’t care what number they have ahead of their name, they’re very good.”

White said the Big 12/SEC Challenge was an opportunity for his league to improve its reputation following a subpar nonconference part of the season.

“I think that it’s very important and it’s always important,” White said. “It just gives this league and the Big 12 opportunities against quality opponents. The SEC has a chance to improve how our numbers look, our computer numbers.”

The Gators are led by 6-foot-10 graduate-transfer forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. (averaging 14.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game), sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson (12.7, 6.7) and sophomore guard Andrew Nembhard (11.0 ppg, 6.1 assists per game).

To beat Baylor, Florida might need a big effort from 6-10 freshman Omar Payne (5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who had his first career double-double in the win against Auburn.

The Gators might have to go small, however, against Baylor’s four-guard attack that is led by sophomore Jared Butler (16.1 ppg), redshirt junior MaCio Teague (13.6 ppg) and 6-9 redshirt-senior forward Freddie Gillespie (9.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg).

Florida is shooting 45.1 percent overall and 33.3 from 3-point range while scoring 74.0 points per game. The Gators are allowing 66.3 points.

Baylor, which lost to Washington in the season’s second game at Alaska, scores 72.7 points per game and has limited opponents to 58.5. The Bears are shooting 42.8 percent overall and 34.6 from behind the arc.

–Field Level Media

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