The Florida Gators are 3-0 in SEC play, unbeaten in the conference like just one other team — Auburn, of all other competitors — and off a scintillating week of road triumphs in which the Gators dominated a very talented Texas A&M team and stole a game from a red-hot Missouri squad.
Now, against Mississippi State on Wednesday night (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN), an illness might make for a speed bump.
Senior point guard Chris Chiozza, who literally swiped the Gators’ win against Missouri and has been having a fantastic season, came down with strep throat earlier this week, per Florida staff scribe Chris Harry. And though he is expected to play tonight against the Bulldogs, he’s not starting — and it’s fair to wonder whether Chiozza, whose game is predicated on his speed and athleticism to a degree that would seem precarious when illness is part of his pregame preparation, will be at full strength.
And, consequently, it’s fair to question whether the Gators can survive without their whirling dervish at full speed.
Chiozza has scored in single digits just four times this season, and the two times he did so and also failed to record five assists were Florida’s two worst performances of the year: A stomping at the feet of Florida State, and a bizarre loss two days later to Loyola of Chicago. When Chiozza was better in the Gators’ next game, posting 15 points and dishing six assists, the Gators beat Cincinnati on a neutral floor — with Cheese coming up huge down the stretch.
Without the biggest efforts Cheese can muster, Florida would theoretically need to lean on KeVaughn Allen, whose efforts at broadening his game to playmaking have been fitful, and Michael Okauru, the only other natural point guard on the roster. What the Gators would look like with Allen and Okauru alone to run the show is up for debate.
And whether that would truly matter against a Mississippi State team that has played just three games away from home — and faceplanted in its two road games — is also more questionable than sure. The Bulldogs have a fine defense, but a flailing offense: While the Bulldogs are brutally bad at shooting from distance, they’re extremely efficient inside ... except they also struggle mightily from the charity stripe, making hacking and hoping a valid defense against them.
Backcourt mates and brothers Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon are the Bulldogs’ go-to guys, and rangy forward Aric Holman is the team’s best shooter, but none is quite as potent a scorer as, say, Allen, to say nothing of Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov, and Florida has played well against Ben Howland teams for almost a decade now.
It would be nice if Chiozza were fully healthy, in other words, but it may not be essential to Florida keeping its undefeated SEC record intact on this night.
But if Chiozza isn’t, and Florida does fall as a result? We’ll get a strong reminder of how fragile some of the foundation of these Gators’ success is.