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Florida vs. Mississippi State, Game Thread: Gators travel to take on green Bulldogs

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No team in America is younger than Mississippi State.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team counts three seniors, three juniors, and two sophomores among its major contributors. Two freshmen see the floor, one more than the other, and so does a senior walk-on whose minutes are about to go up thanks to a season-ending injury to one of those juniors.

That’s a relatively old team in college basketball.

The Mississippi State Bulldogs that those Gators will see today (2:00 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN) are the youngest pups in all of the country.

Ben Howland’s team plays one senior, diminutive point guard I.J. Ready — who has never picked up the “I’m Just” nickname his name would seem a cinch to endow, whether he liked it or not — and no other upperclassmen, essentially. Ready is the only Bulldog with more than a full year of experience to average more than 2.2 minutes a game for this team, and junior Drew Davis, the only other upperclassman on the roster, is a walk-on who hasn’t seen action since 2017 dawned.

There are 351 Division 1 men’s basketball teams. Mississippi State is No. 351 in KenPom’s Experience rating, which weights minutes played by class to explain which teams are riding seniors and which are playing fresh faces.

That youth has made for a rough season for the Bulldogs, especially in SEC play. Mississippi State has a few decent wins — over Boise State at a neutral site, at Arkansas, over Tennessee — but has struggled against good competition and conference foes, going 4-10 against KenPom top-100 teams and 5-8 in SEC contests. Howland’s pups are on a three-game losing skid, too, having fallen to Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia over the last two weeks.

One of the good things about youth, though, is its ignorance, and Mississippi State definitely has not figured out or accepted it should lose in lopsided fashion. Its losses to Kentucky and South Carolina in Starkville were by a combined 11 points, and all three of those recent losses are by single digits. There’s reason to think that Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, and Mario Kegler can all keep the Bulldogs close with the Gators, as all three shoot about 40 percent from three.

But there’s also not much reason to think Florida will fall to Misssissippi State, which simply hasn’t been nearly as good at basically any component of basketball as the Gators this season. The lone troubling Bulldogs strength: An aversion to having the ball stolen, which could short-circuit Florida’s potent transition offense.

That might be more worrisome had Florida not just scored 114 points on the road.

For the Gators, winning this game is key to continuing to pursue an SEC championship. Florida is tied atop the conference leaderboard with Kentucky at 11-2, and plays rematches with both the Wildcats and South Carolina next week.