The Florida Gators’ up-and-down 2019-20 season could find its ultimate up on this Saturday night in the O’Connell Center.
That’s what happens when a No. 1 team like the Baylor Bears comes to town for a showdown (8 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN).
But this is, for Florida, a chance to do something transcending the SEC-Big 12 Challenge that this game serves as a sort of finale for — it’s a chance to mark itself, once and for all, as a genuinely good team.
That verdict has been difficult to make, despite the Gators’ fairly good record of performances this season. Their one bad loss — at Missouri, in a storm of threes that seems like an outlier as time passes — and their biggest win — over Auburn at home last Saturday, in a game they controlled and then cruised in — came on each of the last two Saturdays, and so have a number of other notable results.
The stunning rally to beat Alabama? A Saturday. The game losses to Butler on the road and Utah State in South Florida? Saturday contests, both. Should this Saturday see Florida — a narrow favorite at home — upend the top-ranked Bears, it will be just the latest and boldest bullet point on Saturday affairs for this team.
But whether the Gators can and will do that are different stories.
The answer to can seems like an emphatic yes, given how Florida locked in and locked down against Auburn a week ago, smothering the Tigers and allowing just 47 points over 63 possessions. The Gators have also seemed to find their shots of late, with at least six threes and a shooting percentage of 35 percent or better from distance in six of their last seven games. Good defense and good shooting is a good recipe for this team to compliment the things it can count on, like production from Kerry Blackshear Jr. and some supplementary scoring from sophomore starters Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, and Keyontae Johnson.
Will they put together both of those things and/or other good play against the Bears? That’s harder to say, especially because of how good Baylor is.
The 15-game winning streak the Bears are on has survived trips to Lawrence and Lubbock, and home contests against Villanova, Butler, and Arizona; it is the residue of a team with unheralded players who have developed into excellent ones, like pesky guard Jared Butler, do-everything big Freddie Gillespie, and leather-tough wing Mark Vital.
Baylor is not playing the zone it has been known for under Scott Drew much this season, and it has been suffocating teams despite that departure for man: Only Villanova has broken 70 points against the Bears this year. They play slow, pack the paint, defend the rim, and give up nothing easily.
And though their offense isn’t as good, it is every bit as tenacious, fueled by excellent offensive rebounding — Gillespie’s forte, but a Vital strength as well — that generates all sorts of second shots.
If Florida can’t at least slow Baylor on the boards? It will likely need a Herculean effort to win this game on this night, even in front of what should be a raucous, ravenous crowd.
But if Florida can go toe-to-toe with the current top-ranked team in college ball and prevail? It will be the biggest win in a season begging for big ones.