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Gators poised for SEC tournament run or postseason regret

GAINESVILLE — An SEC men’s basketball tournament run this week is Florida’s goal, and is well within reason.

The possibilities are endless for Todd Golden’s much-improved team.

A stunning regular-season-ending loss at hapless Vanderbilt was more a reminder than a Gators’ “a wake-up call,” their coach’s characterization after last weekend’s 79-78 flop.

The Gators (21-10, 11-7 SEC) enter Thursday night’s match against the Georgia-Missouri winner with the talent and potential to beat anyone, including themselves. Fresh off a 105-87 beatdown of high-scoring Alabama, Florida stumbled against a Vanderbilt squad with just three league wins.

“I think human nature took over a little bit and not just our players,” Golden said. “Our whole program was like, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good,’ and maybe we got ahead of ourselves a little bit.”

The sure-handed Gators committed 16 turnovers, their most in 10 games, and were beaten 20-6 on the offensive glass, where UF ranks second nationally with an average of more than 15.

While Golden doesn’t view the no-show in Nashville as a harbinger, it raised continued concerns about the Gators’ inability to close out games. UF squandered a double-digit lead for the ninth time, six ending in losses.

“This SEC season has shown us what we can do,” point guard Zyon Pullin said. “It’s also shown that in games we don’t show up what can happen. We need to keep a level mind. We’re super confident.

“We know what this team can do.”

Talent isn’t an issue.

Pullin’s 4.38 assist-to-turnover ratio is the SEC’s best this millennium while he also is averaging 15.7 points. Backcourt mate Walter Clayton Jr. averages a team-leading 17 points while power forward Tyrese Samuel (13.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) has a team-high 10 double-doubles.

All three received All-SEC recognition.

The supporting cast, though, has been less reliable and likely will decide Florida’s fate.

During the past four games, wing Will Richard had 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting against Alabama and 8 total points otherwise. Since a 12-point and 12-rebound night Feb. 28 against Missouri, 7-foot-1 Micah Handlogten has 4 points and 16 rebounds. But the ultimate mystery is sophomore guard Riley Kugel, who returned to school rather than turn professional yet has scored in double figures once in the past 11 games. He also had 4 turnovers at Vanderbilt.

The Gators in full flight could run the table, with four wins in four days. They also could lose their first game.

Another wake-up call could spell the end of UF’s postseason dreams.

“There’s a clear understanding of what we’re playing for,” Golden said. “We’re trying to win a championship.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com