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Florida vs. Butler, Game Thread: Can the Gators leave paradise with two wins?

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Florida begins a best-of-three series with Butler. Sort of.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Florida vs Stanford Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, in the Bahamas, the Florida Gators begin an epic best-of-three series with Butler, a program that has intersected with Florida like few others over the course of the 21st century.

I mean, I could write that or write that the Gators and Bulldogs are meeting this Friday night (9:30 p.m., ESPNU or WatchESPN) to determine who finishes fifth and who finishes sixth in the 2018 Battle 4 Atlantis. Whichever.

The Gators got to this game, the final one of the event, by falling to Oklahoma in the three-day tournament’s first game, then rebounding on Friday night to wax Stanford; Butler did something similar, dropping its opener to Dayton and then plastering Middle Tennessee on Thanksgiving by an 84-53 count.

This will be the first game between Florida and Butler since the 2011 NCAA Tournament, one of three such meetings in March since 2000 in which the winner would go on to the national final — and, thanks to a home-and-home series beginning in Gainesville this December and finishing in Indianapolis next fall, it will be the first of three regular-season games between the teams over the next two years.

George Washington transfer Paul Jorgensen — whom you may remember from his cameo against Florida in the 2016 NIT — and senior tweener Sean McDermott each put in 21 points for the Bulldogs on Thursday, and junior Kamar Baldwin had 18 points, five rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and two steals with no turnovers, in one of the better all-around performances that will appear in a box score this year.

But Florida is not Middle, and the Gators were about as impressive in their 72-49 win over Stanford as Butler was in its romp, holding the Cardinal to 13 first-half points, registering 15 steals, and shooting great percentages from inside (54 percent) and outside (47 percent) the arc — and doing all of that essentially without Jalen Hudson, who played just seven minutes off the bench, got two rebounds, and did not take a shot despite being healthy.

The choice to shuffle Hudson, who has been largely ineffective in his redshirt senior season so far, to the bench and the back of the rotation would have been a bizarre one by Florida’s Mike White — except it worked, with sophomore Deaundrae Ballard and freshman Noah Locke flourishing in minutes Hudson might otherwise have played.

And if the spirited play we saw from Florida on Thursday becomes a staple, it might not matter that last year’s leading scorer is suddenly an afterthought on this Gators team.