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Florida vs. Mississppi State, Game Thread: Gators welcome old friend to Gainesville

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Ben Howland's path has intersected with Florida's before. It went well for the Gators. It might go well for them again tonight.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Florida and Mississippi State, two of the four SEC men's basketball programs to enter 2015-16 with new head coaches, would seem to have done very differently for themselves in their hirings. The Gators replaced a two-time national champion coach with a largely unproven one, while the Bulldogs lured a Final Four mainstay to Starkville to replace a largely unproven coach.

And that would seem to be a comparison that flatters Mississippi State's hiring of Ben Howland to replace Rick Ray ... except for the matter of Mike White doing better with Billy Donovan's foundation at Florida coming into Tuesday night's game in the O'Connell Center between the two squads (7 p.m., ESPNU or WatchESPN).

Florida is 11-6, and 3-2 in the SEC, while 7-9 Mississippi State is the only SEC team without eight wins on the year or a single victory in conference play. The Bulldogs have faced a rugged schedule to start SEC play — Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Kentucky are all NCAA Tournament teams, and Tennessee's making a push for inclusion in that pack — that has hampered their ability to win games, sure.

But they're also comparable to the Mississippi team that Florida largely whipped on the road on Saturday night. Mississippi is No. 102 in KenPom, and fell a bit after falling to the Gators, while the Bulldogs are No. 113, with a slightly worse offense and a very similar defense.

Like Mississippi, Mississippi State also relies on one player to do much of its offensive work — but Gavin Ware works inside. The 6'9" center is averaging 17 points and eight rebounds per game, fine numbers for a post who gets very little help inside: Four other Bulldogs score at least nine points a game, but you have to go down to Travis Daniels, a 6'6" combo forward, to find the next one who stands taller than 6'4" on the Bulldogs' scoring list.

Ware is a very efficient scorer, making nearly 64 percent of his shots on the year, and is a menace on the offensive glass. Partly because of his proficiency on putbacks, he's shooting a phenomenal 85.5 percent on shots at the rim, and it will be imperative for Florida to keep Ware walled off from the tin if it wants to make Mississippi State play left-handed.

I imagine the Gators will take their chances on other players beating them, given how largely inefficient the rest of Mississippi State's offense is. Craig Sword and five-star freshman Malik Newman score in double figures, but Sword's been woeful from deep and still takes about three triples a game, while Newman's fine three-point shooting (36.6 percent) still hasn't made him efficient, thanks to poor shot selection from inside the arc. Newman's taken almost as many jumpers as he has shots at the rim, and he's made a dismal 31.2 percent of those jumpers; for comparison, Chris Chiozza, who lacks Newman's height and can't quite match his leaping ability, has made 33.3 percent of his two-point jumpers in 2015-16.

Of course, if Florida's offense can shoot in Gainesville like it did in Oxford, it might not matter that much what the Bulldogs are able to do on offense. The Gators topped 55 percent in effective field goal percentage for just the third time this season on Saturday — and they've won the three games in which they've done so by an average of 27.6 points per game, though a 50-point romp against North Carolina A&T skews those numbers considerably.

If Chiozza can help the Gators cut down on turnovers that helped keep Saturday's game ostensibly close, then Florida can probably even survive some regression on the offensive end, too. And given that his assist rate is more than double his turnover rate for the year — and an absurd 49.1 in conference play, better than the nation's leader in the statistic for the year — he's got a chance to do so.

And so Florida might just hand Howland what his team earned when his UCLA Bruins met the Gators in the Final Four in 2006 and 2007: A loss.