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Florida vs. LSU, Game Thread: Gators, Tigers resume rollicking rivalry

Suddenly, Florida and LSU can’t play normal games on the hardwood, either.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last two decades, give or take a few years, the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers have developed one of college football’s best modern-era rivalries through a combination of program prominence and utter absurdity in their on-field meetings, spiced up here and there by a hurricane and a skeleton cat.

Their men’s basketball counterparts, almost out of the blue, appear to be building a rivalry to match it on the court, and it resumes this Wednesday night (9 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2 or WatchESPN) with plenty on the line.

Despite some notable games in the 2010s — LSU’s sweep in 2014-15 to avenge three straigh years of double-digit losses; a 96-91 LSU win in 2016 in which the Gators scored 44 points in the game’s final 10 minutes; Florida raining 19 threes on LSU in a 35-point win in Baton Rouge in 2017 — the point when this series went from occasionally spirited affair to rivalry was unquestionably the 2018-19 season, Will Wade’s second in Baton Rouge and the one in which his excellent and totally above-board recruiting began to bear fruit. Florida broke through and earned one of its season-defining wins at LSU in overtime in late February, only for the Tigers to repay the favor with an overtime win in Gainesville on Senior Night. When Florida won the rubber match in the SEC Tournament, it was on a dramatic late three by Andrew Nembhard — and it was the win that completely sealed the Gators as an NCAA Tournament team.

But earlier this year, LSU managed to even the series over the last two seasons despite its own best efforts to blow a massive lead. Florida once again made a furious rally late, scoring 20 points in the final 3:24 of play to all but erase an 11-point LSU lead, but a Keyontae Johnson lay-in at the buzzer was ruled just late and left the Tigers exhaling and the Gators on the losing end of the fourth straight game between these two teams decided by three or fewer points or in overtime.

LSU has basically not changed since that game: The Tigers are still formidable inside thanks to Emmitt Williams, Trendon Watford, and oversized guards, and still care very little for the concept of defense, having given up fewer than 76 points just twice in their nine games played since that win. But the Tigers’ results have: LSU is 2-4 in its past six, with losses to Vanderbilt and Alabama, and has tumbled from being undefeated and leading the SEC to sitting in third and clinging to hopes of wearing home jerseys in the NCAA Tournament.

And so this game is huge for both the Gators and Tigers, for whom a win could all but seal their NCAA Tournament resumes as worthy in a year with a wobbly bubble.

The good news for Florida? It seems to have improved since that night in Baton Rouge. While Florida got 15 or more points from all of its top four scorers in that game, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson have each raised their level of play since that trip, and Tre Mann — whose 11 points against Kentucky were all tough ones — has emerged as a consistently dangerous presence off the Gators’ bench.

Florida will probably still go as Nembhard does against the Tigers, as it often does, but having that improved supporting cast and a fully healthy Kerry Blackshear Jr. — and not the sick version that still mustered 15 points in the PMAC — should help.