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Florida vs. Oklahoma, Game Thread: Gators take perfect mark to Sooner State

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Florida’s strong start to the 2021-22 season might take its first blemish in Norman.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

For the Florida Gators, November brought a few significant challenges in men’s basketball.

The FSU game? A rivalry contest against an opponent that has owned the Gators in recent years. Milwaukee’s visit to the O’Dome? A game against an NBA lottery pick. Games in Fort Myers against California and Ohio State? Clashes with teams from big-time conferences — with one admittedly being a lot better than the other.

But Florida passed all of those tests, its indefatigable defense and wealth of scoring options helping to make mincemeat of every foe except Ohio State and preserving the Gators’ chances for long enough in that game for a buzzer-beater for the books to snag the win in it in thrilling fashion.

Now comes another major test, probably the biggest one of Florida’s pre-January non-conference schedule: A road game against Oklahoma.

The Sooners are, appropriately, honoring former Florida coach and longtime Oklahoma steward Lon Kruger on this night, a fitting tribute to a man who took both schools to the Final Four. But Kruger’s retirement at the end of last season — a somewhat disappointing 16-11 campaign in which a 2-6 skid followed a 14-5 start — led to the hiring of former Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser, whose own Final Four team memorably upset Florida in the 2017-18 season.

And that turnover at the top also led to a lot of turnover on OU’s roster. Gone, despite the ability to take a COVID-related mulligan, are seniors Brady Manek and Austin Reaves, who ended up at North Carolina and with the Lakers, respectively; sophomore De’Vion Harmon, the only other Sooner to make 20 or more starts last year, transferred to Oregon.

The senior wing pairing of Umoja Gibson and Elijah Harkless is now fully in Oklahoma’s starting lineup, with Duke transfer Jordan Goldwire running point. Previously little-used reserve Jalen Hill is now part of a frontcourt that also features Eastern Washington transfer Tanner Groves, who spent a couple of years as one of college basketball’s under-the-radar stars.

And as one might expect, that’s also remade the Sooners’ plan of attack. Groves and his backup, SMU transfer Ethan Chargois, soak up shots, and they and Hill are all very effective interior scorers; Groves’s excellent 68 percent mark on twos is the worst of any of the three so far this year. Groves — who hasn’t been quite the defender Manek was — also has the green light to shoot threes, and is connecting at about a 39 percent clip. But the rest of the Sooners really don’t launch shots, and instead play some patient, searching ball on offense, which has translated to superb shooting percentages.

Where they fail on offense is on the boards and in drawing fouls — not exactly a shock for a team with a big man who often pops to the perimeter and smaller guards who do not have reputations for getting to the line. And those should be weaknesses Florida can exploit: The Gators rebound very well both individually and as a team, and have enough players with foot speed to throw some different coverages at Groves and dare the other Sooners to shoot.

Oklahoma’s lack of rim protection could also be an opportunity for Florida, which obviously has Colin Castleton ready to feast down low but could also be set up to see guards both fleet (Tyree Appleby) and powerful (Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming) get into the lane and score at will.

This is Florida’s first road game, and it’s one against a team that routinely has a good crowd on hand; surely, honoring Kruger will juice it up a bit for this one. But Florida also acquitted itself nicely in Fort Myers, land of wonky rims and a surprising number of Buckeyes fans, and it would be a bit of a shock if a team comprised of veterans of so many different road environments doesn’t get up for this one.

A final note: Bally Sports, which is probably near where any regional Fox Sports channels were on your magic TV box, is airing this game regionally, with it being split between Bally Sports Fla and Bally Sports Sun in Florida and other channels elsewhere. There’s also an online stream, but every review I’ve seen of Bally’s streaming capacity suggests that you really want to catch this one on TV if at all possible.