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Florida vs. Auburn, Game Thread: Hello, old friend

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Longtime Florida nemesis Bruce Pearl makes his return to Gainesville tonight.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

He's back.

That's the only thing I can think of heading into Thursday night's clash between Florida and Auburn (7 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN) in the O'Connell Center, which doubles as Bruce Pearl's first game against the team he tormented while at Tennessee. And Pearl's return brings up bad memories.

The first loss the 2005-06 Florida team took? It was to Tennessee, and squandered the Gators' shot at being the No. 1 team in the country. The last Florida home loss of that season? It was to Tennessee, too. And the Oh-Fours' last loss as a unit — ever — came to Tennessee in 2007.

In fairness, that core never beat Tennessee at home, somehow, though Pearl was only responsible for the latter two losses. (Miss you, Buzz Peterson.) But in 2006 and 2007, en route to two national titles, Florida went 29-9 against SEC teams, including two sweeps of the SEC Tournament — and 1-3 against Pearl and Tennessee.

That sweaty, jacket-wearing, silver-tongued, barbecue-having dude was always entertaining. But his teams never stopped challenging Florida.

And the Vols just kept beating the Gators.

Through three seasons, Pearl had a 5-1 mark against Billy Donovan and Florida; through four, it was 7-1. Pearl's Vols swept Florida's two NIT teams in 2008 and 2009, but, heck, they swept Florida in 2006, too.

In 2010, after running off six straight wins against Florida (which began during Florida's own seven-game winning streak over Kentucky, for perspective), the Vols finally lost to the Gators for the second time under Pearl, in a 75-62 stomping in Gainesville, punctuated by a 19-4 second half run, that served as Donovan's first home win against his orange-clad counterpart. And in 2011, Pearl's final year on Rocky Top, Florida swept the Vols for the first and only time in Pearl's tenure, adding a third win over Pearl in the SEC Tournament for good measure.

Still, the 5-8 mark Donovan holds against Pearl is his worst against any coach other than his mentor, Rick Pitino (whom Donovan has never beaten in seven meetings). And Pearl endeared himself to very few Florida fans during his time with Tennessee with his sideline histrionics.

The good news for this game, in 2015, is that none of that matters.

And the better news is that Auburn is bad.

We know Florida's diagnosis at this point: The Gators play ferocious defense, but are susceptible to hot shooting, and bog down and get cold in their own halfcourt offense, especially when not making shots. But I'm not sure Pearl knows what his Tigers are: They're 132nd in KenPom entering tonight, 12th in the 14-team SEC (and ahead of only Missouri and the Mississippi State squad Florida crushed last Saturday), and have been erratic at their best.

Auburn started the year 3-5, and lost three straight to Texas Tech, Coastal Carolina, and Clemson, putting to rest any idiotic proclamations that the Tigers might end up in the top tier of the SEC this year. But then the Tigers knocked off a very good Xavier team at home, fended off the Texas Southern squad that had just beaten Michigan State in East Lansing, and won its next two games by 16 and 21 points.

Oh, and then they scored just 52 points in 66 possessions against a bad Vanderbilt defense on the road to open SEC play, making under a third of their shots. Auburn followed that with a win over Missouri last weekend, but this up-and-down season has no doubt left Pearl wondering what his team can do consistently.

For now, that answer seems to be "get fouled": Auburn is 39th nationally in Free Throw Rate, and has an alarming six players who are over 50 percent in personal Free Throw Rate. Florida has one, Alex Murphy, who has played in five games, and his rate is well removed from that of Auburn's Trayvon Reed, similarly productive in a small sample size: Reed would lead the nation in Free Throw Rate if he'd played 60 percent of Auburn's minutes on the year.

Unfortunately, Auburn's awful at the line, even worse than Florida. Reed has made just four of 13 free throws, so he's totally getting hacked, and big man Cinmeon Bowers, a Florida State transfer who owns the boards, has made 45 of 95 freebies on the year; it's safe to send him to the line.

And though Bowers is great on the glass, he's been part of a bad interior defense, one that allows opposing teams to make better than half of their twos. Only Reed qualifies as a rim protector, and he's raw as sushi.

Florida's primary worry on this night should be containing K.T. Harrell, who's shooting better than 42 percent from three, and Jordon Granger, a stretch four whose True Shooting Percentage is higher than Michael Frazier II's. If the Gators can do that, they should have enough firepower in Dorian Finney-Smith, Frazier, Eli Carter, and whomever else decides to score a few points to win.

If they don't? Pearl's return will be a new nightmare.