The Florida Gators had one of their most successful weeks all year last week, surviving Vanderbilt and throttling Alabama in Tuscaloosa for just their second winning streak — and first unbeaten week — in SEC play.
They now need to build on that success, as they are assured of only one chance to reshape their NCAA Tournament profile better than the one they get this Wednesday night at LSU (7 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN).
The Gators play LSU twice in the next and final three weeks of SEC action, hosting the Tigers in early March after this trip to bayou country. But while playing the Tigers at home presents a better chance for the Gators to spring an upset — and playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena presents a bigger pelt — winning this game would go a long way toward qualifying Florida for NCAA Tournament play.
A win over LSU would, after all, be Florida’s best by far this season. The Tigers are currently No. 13 in the NCAA’s new NET metric, more than 20 spots better than No. 35 Ole Miss, the highest-ranked team that Florida has downed thus far. And Florida is currently 0-5 against top-20 teams in the NET, which has helped build a perception that the Gators are good enough to beat bad teams but not good enough to top good ones.
LSU being up that high in the NET also makes a win over the Tigers relatively safe to claim as a big one. Florida’s win over Alabama on Saturday was a win over a top-50 team in the NET at the time — but Alabama was literally No. 50 then, and has since fallen to No. 53. That wouldn’t be a big deal in a world in which the NCAA wasn’t using arbitrary endpoints to determine whether a win is a Quadrant I or Quadrant II win, but, well, that’s our world.
Scoring a road win over a team that appears to be safely in college basketball’s upper echelon, though? That looks good in any world.
Beating LSU will not be easy for Mike White’s Gators, though, whether on the road or at home. LSU has been one of the great surprises of the 2018-19 season, with Will Wade’s excellent 2018 recruiting class gelling quickly with waterbug point guard Tremont Waters. LSU scores very efficiently inside, with freshman Naz Reid and Oregon transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams teaming as twin towers that have been too much for many teams, and Waters leads an aggressive, press-happy defense that generates steals much like Florida does.
And the program succeeding despite the tragic slaying of Wayde Sims just prior to the start of fall practice last September is a stirring, inspiring story that makes it impossible to root against the Tigers as a group of people, even if we’d obviously like to see our Gators win two games against them on the court.
But Florida knows the stakes of this game, and has responded to being backed against the bricks with strong performances in its last two games, thanks to a season-best showing by its bench players against Vanderbilt and a phenomenal game from freshman Andrew Nembhard in Tuscaloosa.
With a third straight such performance, Florida’s chances of dancing will be substantially better come sunrise on Thursday.