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Florida vs. Michigan State, Game Thread: Gators host Spartans in showdown

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Want a signature win? Florida will not get a better opportunity in 2018.

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NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic -West Virginia at Florida Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Being obsessed with signature or good or best wins in college athletics is a bit dumb. Good teams play other good teams fairly often, and a good (or bad!) performance against a great team is often less predictive than a series of excellent or subpar performances against bad teams.

That said: In these sports, subjective judgments are part of the process, and it is better to have more of those wins than not. And so, with Florida getting its best chance at a signature win thus far this season on this Saturday as Michigan State enters the O’Dome (noon, CBS or CBS All-Access), the Gators have a major opportunity before them today.

It is also a significant test. Per KenPom, Michigan State is the best team that the Gators have yet faced, with the No. 9 Spartans standing a fair distance from No. 16 Florida State, No. 27 West Virginia, and No. 29 Butler. Tom Izzo’s team also ranks in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

For these Spartans, offense (where MSU is No. 5) is the focal point. Michigan State has an excellent inside-out attack that features two efficient post scorers in burly center Nick Ward and more athletic forward Xavier Tillman and two very efficient perimeter scorers in point guard Cassius Winston and wing Joshua Langford. Ward and Tillman are each making better than 60 percent of their twos; Winston and Langford are each making better than 42 percent of their threes, and have both made 24 treys over nine games this year.

But the Michigan State defense has lagged somewhat behind its offense. Apart from an utterly aberrational 101-33 win over Tennessee Tech, the Spartans have not held an opponent under 0.8 points per possession this year; they haven’t kept a major-conference foe under 0.9, either, and have losses to Kansas and Louisville in which their defense conceded 1.06 and 1.09 points per trip and 10 threes in each game, enough to tip the scales in games in which their offense mustered better than a point per trip in its own right.

And though the Spartans are excellent at defending twos — Tillman and Ward are imposing frontliners, and Izzo has a host of lanky wings that harass drivers — they are merely decent at defending the perimeter, and foul quite often. Michigan State opponents have scored about a quarter of their points from the foul line, a percentage that ranks No. 23 nationally.

Whether Florida can take advantage of that defense will probably determine this game. The Gators can be stifling on defense, and are coming off a swarming effort against West Virginia big man Sagaba Konate that holds some promise for their chances against Ward (and, to a lesser extent, Tillman) inside; they are also more than fast enough to keep up with a very good transition team, and should be careful enough to limit live-ball turnovers that would be the fuel for that transition game.

But Florida is still finding itself in its half-court offense, with Jalen Hudson — arguably its most talented scorer — stuck in a season-long funk and deep in Mike White’s rotation, and most of the rest of its offense currently revolving around what freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard can create. When Nembhard is good, Florida can be very good at creating good shots; without him on the floor and playing at a high level, the Gators must rely on the streaky KeVaughn Allen to be aggressive and create shots for himself and others, as most of the rest of the Gators roster struggles with that.

KenPom projects a one-point Michigan State win in this game, and that is the sort of margin in an advanced-stats projection that makes the game truly a toss-up. If Florida can win this one, it will improve its standing as a potential NCAA Tournament team immensely.

But if Florida cannot win this game, it will have let a golden opportunity slip.