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Florida vs. Auburn, Game Thread: Reeling Gators seek big pelt

Florida hasn’t had a big win in weeks. Can the Gators get one in the Saturday night spotlight?

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The last truly great win the Florida Gators had in their increasingly maddening men’s basketball campaign was, what, their win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena?

Since then, they have lost at Tennessee and to Alabama, in their only major conference clashes, and beaten a Baylor team far lower in the NCAA Tournament at-large pecking order than Kentucky. Sprinkle in two losses to Georgia, a home loss to South Carolina, and a baffling defeat at Vanderbilt, and Florida’s recent resume lines all look like either missed opportunities or self-inflicted wounds.

On this Saturday night, against SEC leader Auburn (8:30 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN), the Gators have a chance to make up for lost time.

The Tigers are the SEC’s best team, and a win away from being its champion. They have been, all year, really: They burst to a 16-1 start, and while that came mostly against a nondescript non-conference slate, the way the Tigers had pulverized many of their foes got Auburn up to No. 20 in KenPom by the last win of that stretch.

Since then, they’re “only” 8-3 — with, notably, a loss at South Carolina, where Florida won by 24 — but have vaulted even higher, up to No. 8 in KenPom, by virtue of playing a beautiful and relentless brand of Bruce Pearl basketball. The undersized Tigers are even smaller now than they were a week ago, thanks to an injury to 6’7” “center” Anfernee McLemore, but they also just waxed Alabama by 19 in their first game without him, withstanding 25 points from Collin Sexton without blinking.

That was — and this season is — thanks to the Tigers’ complement of excellent guards, mostly. Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, and Mustapha Heron form a formidable wing trio, all of whom have drilled at least 33 threes on the year. Adding in shooting at or better than a 40 percent clip from deep from McLemore and Chuma Okeke made Auburn one of the nation’s more dangerous teams on the perimeter, and the prodigious efforts of all of those guards when it came to getting fouled and converting the free throws has further complicated defending a team that can get things done either from distance or off the dribble.

That has also helped cover for what Auburn has not had, in the form of suspended bigs Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy: An interior game. The Tigers are arguably even smaller than Florida, with Okeke and Horace Spencer each standing 6’8” and neither profiling as a center, but they have not been eaten alive like the Gators, with an accelerated pace that often involves aggressive man defense helping to mitigate the effects of being outmatched physically.

That’s not to say that Auburn is invincible, of course. A team with decent perimeter shooting and good foul shooters could take advantage of the Tigers’ mediocre three-point defense and foul-happy defenders. Florida, in theory, is that — but the Gators have not made 10 threes since that rout of Baylor, and have only topped 35 percent shooting once in that span, while also being poor at the line of late, failing to make even 70 percent of their free throws in their last three outings, all losses.

Florida is also in desperate need of a big win to stop a tailspin and stabilize itself before the SEC Tournament, and Auburn could be that — if Florida focuses and plays hard and all of that stuff.

But as we’ve seen before, this team does that only on occasion, and without any real rhyme or reason as to when.