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Florida in flux entering NIT opener vs. Iona

Mar 10, 2022; Tampa, FL, USA; Florida Gators forward Colin Castleton (12) gets pumped up against the Texas A&M Aggies during the first half at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators are in flux as they prepare to play Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday night in Gainesville, Fla.

Coach Mike White resigned Sunday as coach of the third-seeded Gators (19-13) to replace the fired Tom Crean at SEC rival Georgia.

Associate head coach Al Pinkins will serve as interim coach against the Gaels (25-7), the regular-season champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

White compiled a 142-88 record in seven seasons at Florida. He guided the Gators to the NCAA Tournament four times, but any chance at it this year vanished when they lost five of their last eight games, including an overtime defeat to Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC tournament.

Neither Pinkins nor anyone else from the program has been made available to the media since White’s departure.

One X-factor Wednesday for Florida could be freshman guard Kowacie Reeves, who scored 21 points as the Gators desperately tried to rally against the Aggies. Reeves is averaging 4.9 points a game.

“He puts the most work in probably out of anybody on the team,” said teammate Colin Castleton, who is averaging 16.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. “Comes in with the right attitude every day, something I’ve never seen from somebody so young. I wish I had that when I was his age.

Iona also had bigger plans in the second season of Pitino’s tenure as coach, but the Gaels’ dreams ended with a shocking 71-70 loss to Rider in the quarterfinals of the MAAC tournament.

Thus, Iona settled for an automatic NIT bid as the MAAC regular-season champ.

“I’m proud of my guys,” Pitino said. “They gave me a great season. But when you’re in a one-bid league, you suffer if you lose in the conference tournament.”

The Gaels have lost two of their last three games.

“We won nine games (actually 10) by single digits in the league,” Pitino said. “We weren’t an overpowering team. We just played great.”

However, in terms of common opponents, the Gaels beat NCAA Tournament No. 6 seed Alabama by four on a neutral floor. Florida lost to the Crimson Tide at home by 13.

Tyson Jolly, who shoots 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, leads three double-figure scorers for Iona with 14.6 points per game. But this is not a classic Pitino team, as the Gaels connect on only 33.3 percent of their long-range attempts. That’s still better than the Gators’ 30.7 percent clip.

–Field Level Media