Remember late September of last year, when a group of Florida Gators traveled to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in a game that was of outsized importance to both teams, but also featured teams that had taken puzzling losses early on in their respective seasons?
Tuesday night’s rematch of those schools on the basketball court (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN) is like that, but also a story of two teams trying to turn seasons around.
For the Gators, that season appears increasingly likely to not end with a postseason berth with every painful loss. Florida is 9-6 on the season, the lone top-50 team in KenPom yet to crack double-digit wins, and is just 1-2 in SEC play, with losses in Saturday home games against South Carolina and Tennessee. The Gators were not expected to top the SEC or make a deep NCAA Tournament run in 2019, to be fair, given the losses of senior spark plug Chris Chiozza and reliable scorer Egor Koulechov from last season’s squad, but they were also expected to be at least a little better than this.
Thing is, so was Mississippi State — and the Bulldogs may be actually be slightly more underperforming than the Gators are.
Ben Howland returned essentially his entire 2017-18 rotation intact for the 2018-19 season, and Mississippi State entered the year as a top-20 team in both major preseason polls as a result of having brothers Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon flanked by Aric Holman and Lamar Peters in the Bulldogs’ starting five.
And Mississippi State lost just once in nonconference play — to, of all teams, an utterly unpredictable Arizona State squad that has also beaten Kansas and fallen to Princeton.
So the Bulldogs are very much pointed toward postseason play. But they are also 0-2 against SEC foes — and, given that those foes were South Carolina and Mississippi, teams thought to be middle-of-the-pack outfits at best, the Bulldogs’ SEC start is a bit of a shocker.
The reasons for those losses — a 13-for-23 performance on the line in Columbia and a 6-for-21 showing from distance against the Rebels, mostly — do make sense. But Mississippi State is the most experienced team in the SEC, even more so than the potent Tennessee squad that has been poised all year, and consecutive off nights downing the Bulldogs is both a reminder that even good and talented teams can struggle, and that this 2018-19 edition of the SEC is far more rugged than many iterations of the recent past have been.
Tonight’s game is going to make its winner happy — or relieved — to be back on the right track. But its loser may have to do some deep soul-searching.