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Florida vs. LSU, Game Thread: Gators’ big week begins in Baton Rouge

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Florida has clawed its way back to likely NCAA Tournament participation. It can begin climbing the ladder this week.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have spent the better part of a month rebuilding an NCAA Tournament résumé that had few bullet points to be proud of by the end of the bulk of their non-conference schedule.

And to their credit, they have mostly done this without incident.

This week, beginning with Tuesday night’s trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU (7 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN), they have a chance to start making that résumé stand out.

And it may be their toughest week of this season.

The spotlight will be in Gainesville on Saturday night, when the Gators host No. 1 Baylor — on a 15-game win streak after losing its second game of the year and poised to finally dethrone Kansas in the Big 12 — in the marquee primetime game of a full day of men’s college basketball. But the tougher game for Florida — at least, that is, if you put any stock in home-court advantage in college basketball — may be its meeting with LSU, itself an unbeaten in conference play.

Will Wade’s team is not as good as it was a year ago, it would be easy to argue. The 2018-19 Tigers lost only a handful of games, and most to very good teams — Florida State, Houston, Florida twice, Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament — while also capturing the SEC’s regular-season title despite a cloud of suspicion about potential NCAA violations and the wake of the tragic shooting death of Wayde Sims.

This team is 13-4, and would need to finish out the year 15-3 to match its predecessor’s mark; it also lost to respectable teams that aren’t NCAA Tournament locks in non-conference play: VCU, Utah State — which has really struggled in the Mountain West after a leather-tough win over Florida — East Tennessee State, and USC. The 5-0 start in the SEC is a good one, but LSU’s best win of those five is probably a 79-77 win over Arkansas at home — and the three victories since have also been close, with the last two over Texas A&M and Ole Miss coming against two of the three SEC teams outside the top 100 in KenPom.

Florida will be the highest-rated SEC team that the Tigers have seen, per KenPom — the Gators are second in the league behind Kentucky, having leapt and taken down Auburn in one fell swoop last Saturday — and the Gators boast the best defense LSU has seen in a while. That defense will be put through its paces: LSU has the fifth-best offense in the country in terms of scoring efficiency, with a crew of long-armed guards (Javonte Smart and Skylar Mays each stand 6’4”) and interior scorers (ultra-efficient Darius Days and versatile big Emmitt Williams) contributing to a team that is ferocious in the paint.

The Tigers make 56.6 percent of their twos, also fifth best nationally, and yank down 36 percent of available offensive rebounds, which helps power that paint scoring with putbacks. Florida did a fine job of limiting Auburn in that respect — and, in fact, did a lot of damage of its own via putbacks, thanks largely to Omar Payne — but LSU’s Tigers are admittedly of a different stripe.

The good news for Florida is that mitigating offensive boards and getting its own will go a long way towards getting a win. LSU is mediocre defensively, especially on the perimeter, and has only kept Mississippi State under a point per possession in SEC play.

The Tigers don’t foul much, which could gum up Kerry Blackshear’s gameplan, but Blackshear is also a mismatch for most of the Tigers, taller and stronger than their undersized bigs, and he’s overdue for a fine day of shooting from the field, as he hasn’t hit 50 percent of his shots since SEC competition began.

But Florida has the tools and the approach to limit LSU if it can at least avoid being wiped out on the glass. And if the Gators are focused on this game — not what they did to beat Auburn, except in the sense of what may transfer to this contest, and not the looming showdown with Baylor — they may end up with an excellent road win and a share of first place in the SEC by night’s end.

If not, I’m sure we’ll find a way to fire Mike White for the 30th time on Twitter.