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Florida vs. Mississippi State, Game Thread: Gators seek start of something new

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Beat the Bulldogs, and the Gators’ SEC slate starts to look a little lighter for a while.

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was not the best week of the season for the Florida Gators.

An 0-2 stretch against LSU and Baylor did nothing to help the Gators’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament or contending in the SEC — even if it didn’t exactly hurt those chances, either, except in the sense of opportunities missed — and the Gators’ too-little, too-late rally in Baton Rouge and shooting woes after a blazing start against the Bears were familiar faults for a team that is still struggling to put together 40 minutes of focus and even half that many of good shooting.

The good news for Florida is that every week is a new week in college basketball — especially in this topsy-turvy year — and that the Gators could be about to go streaking again. If they should defeat Mississippi State on this Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN), they will then embark on what seems on paper to be their softest stretch of SEC play this year, with their next five games coming against teams outside the KenPom top 90 and four coming against outfits outside the top 100.

It’s possible, if the Gators get right and stay there, that they could be 19-7 and 10-2 in SEC play on February 18, when Arkansas comes to town, without having defeated more than one NCAA Tournament team between now and then.

But beating that team — Mississippi State, like Florida a desperate bunch just barely on the right side of the bubble at present — tonight will be no small feat.

The Bulldogs have been arguably disappointing in their own right under Ben Howland, the coach whose hiring — by current Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin — was hailed as the beginning of the SEC getting really serious about men’s basketball again in the mid-2010s. The problem is that Howland, who took UCLA to three Final Fours before wearing out his welcome in Westwood, hasn’t found the same success in Starkville, notching just two 20-win seasons in four previous tries, failing to win more than 10 SEC games in any of them, and making just one NCAA Tournament trip in 2019.

It’s hard to fault Howland too much for having his program-building sideswiped by five-star freshman Malik Newman’s decision to bail on the Bulldogs after 2016, but he hasn’t nabbed a recruit of that caliber since, and has been reliant to a damning degree on the mercurial Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, as a result.

Reggie Perry helped stabilize the program upon his 2018-19 arrival, and is clearly this team’s leader, but even his emergence as a star and future pro hasn’t made the Bulldogs a juggernaut: They, too, are 12-7 entering tonight, except their only win over a KenPom top-50 school happened against Arkansas, and their non-conference schedule taxed them far less than Florida’s did the Gators.

Perry anchors a front line that will assault the glass in hopes of dominating via offensive rebounding, and Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter can shoot a bit, if typically in streaks, but Florida should be able to force turnovers against a largely careless State offense.

And if Florida can shoot even a bit better than it did against Baylor, it should be able to control this game — at least, barring the Bulldogs more than matching the Gators’ intensity.