Florida only had back-to-back games versus ranked opponents on the road once during Billy Donovan's 19 years with the Gators. Those were conference games. Tonight, Florida faces its second consecutive ranked team on the road, heading to a sold-out Breslin Center to take on Michigan State (6:00 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN). The Gators are facing two ranked road opponents back-to-back out of conference for the first time ever. While Florida has played back-to-back non-conference games against ranked opponents in both of the last two seasons, one of those games was at home and the other was at a neutral site.
Michigan State is not just any ranked team, either. The undefeated Spartans are No. 1 in the AP Poll. Tonight is also Florida's first ever non-conference regular season game against the nation's No. 1 team. Michigan State made the leap from No. 3 to the overwhelming No. 1 selection this past week after then No. 1 Kentucky, and then No. 2 Maryland, each lost. The Gators and Spartans will meet for the seventh time tonight, with the series presently tied at 3-3. Two of those meetings were in the NCAA Tournament, with both games won by the Spartans, including Michigan State's 89-76 victory in the 2000 national championship game. Incidentally, that 2000 national championship Michigan State team will be honored at tonight's game.
The Gators face a steep challenge tonight as they attempt to stay with, and potentially upset, the top ranked Spartans. Michigan State is off to its second best start in 20 years under head coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans have been great on the defensive glass and are winning games by an average of 27.4 points, with only Kansas and Louisville staying within single digits of the Spartans in their losses. Michigan State has arguably one of the best players in college basketball in senior guard Denzel Valentine, who averages a team best 18.8 points.
Florida is coming off a game against Miami in which it recorded its lowest offensive output of the season, struggling to make shots and without an answer for the Hurricanes' backcourt. The Gators do have a strong defense but their shooting struggles have hurt them, especially against better competition. Mike White's team is searching for an offensive identity, and for answers to their offensive struggles. This week he hinted that there could be changes made to the Gators' starting lineup. With comparatively consistent play in the frontcourt, the changes, if any are made, figure to be in Florida's backcourt, where Kasey Hill in particular has struggled.
The Spartans are a solid team in all facets of the game, and are arguably the best team in college basketball. Upsetting that team at home would be a big ask of the Gators. Even though Florida likely has the best defense of any team that Michigan State has played so far this season, the Gators' upset chances rely on them heating up their usually cold shooting. Florida is ranked last in the SEC in field goal percentage and 12th in three-point shooting.
The last time these two teams met was on November 27, 2009, when the unranked Gators upset the No. 2 Spartans 77-74 in the Legends Classic in Atlantic City. Tonight, at home in front of a crowd of 14,759, the top ranked Spartans appear to have every advantage over the Gators. A similar upset might not be in the cards this time. But, it would be quite the coup for Mike White's Gators if it was.