First, let me say that I don’t like Florida playing Thanksgiving.
To the sheFlorida fan who doesn’t have a contractual obligation to write about such a game, contests like today’s against Xavier in the Phil Knight Invitational – the PK85 if you’re mad – you can get that on the TV during a tryptophan haze, a distraction of family disputes or an excuse not to play with the children.
It’s work for me. And, yes, it’s work for the athletes and coaches and whatnot that’s involved too, even though it’s a privilege to go to Portland and drool over cool Nike shoes and wear black uniforms and not at 80- degree weather to be damn week. You can be entertained; other people work. After a few years off, Florida is now a Thanksgiving game again alongside the Fixings, thanks to a pandemic and participation in a shorter, two-game tournament last year — one that Tyree Appleby capped off with a fantastic buzzer-beater, and, well Yes, I was more looking forward to other games.
But it’s also true that Florida is playing recent rival Xavier – a very good team outside of the Power Five that doesn’t share the same brand name as Florida and is therefore the kind of team that Gators fans will be clamoring for the Gators “should”. hit without giving them much credit for it – doesn’t really move the meter either. These teams played a mostly spirited NIT game a year ago, with Xavier winning en route to winning the NIT title, and played another good game in Cincinnati about a decade ago, but there’s not the kind of story that goes, for example Florida has , Butler or Gonzaga around this game.
Xavier has also historically been, to be kind, a boring and uninspiring sort of gut for those outside of the fandom. The era of Thad Matta and Sean Miller and Chris Mack — or at least the first for Miller — featured many very good teams but few dominant, conquering ones: Three Elite Eight trips since 2004 have come from No. 3, No. 7 and No. 11 seeded, but No. 1 and No. 2 Xavier squads in the 2018 and 2016 NCAA tournaments failed to make the Sweet Sixteen. The last three NCAA tournaments have been without the Musketeers in the field, which is why Travis Steele is no longer their head coach.
Miller is back now after a sweaty, sleazy tenure in Arizona that nonetheless featured some great Wildcats rosters, and the early returns are decent. Xavier is 3-1 with double-digit wins against a few notable mid-majors and startled Indiana last Friday, rebounding from 78-70 and losing 81-79. The tall and capable Jack Nunge, who had 12 points, eight boards and four assists in a devastating 19 minutes against Florida last March, is back serving as a versatile terror, and the cast of returnees around him – plus UTEP transfer Souley Boum – made this team a team that can really shoot.
Florida has Colin Castleton, sure, but has yet to find a shooter who can keep the defense consistently honest enough not to double Castleton – Kyle Lofton, Kowacie Reeves and Will Richard have all made four or more threes this year, but only Reeves has made three in a game, and he’s only done that once — and was unimpressive defensively, save for one hit against a severely limited Stony Brook and the disruptive start to his second-half comeback against Florida State. Nunge is also probably the best big man Castleton has seen so far this year, so this game could prove to be one that Florida must attempt without winning the 20+ and 10+ that Castleton has ably produced so far.
But no matter what happens, I will watch and think and then write.
Happy Thanksgiving. Go Gators.