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Florida vs. Missouri, Game Thread: Gators close out home slate with erratic Tigers

Florida can secure its SEC Tournament standing by defending home court against Missouri.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators’ 2020-21 season has been a topsy-turvy one, with COVID-19 causing pauses and the collapse of preseason SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson cleaving the campaign into two distinct halves.

But they haven’t quite had as much of the ups or downs as Missouri, their opponent on a Senior Night in which no scholarship seniors will be honored in the O’Dome (6:30 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN).

Missouri was 6-0 in non-conference play, knocking off what was then thought to be a very good Oregon team and what has turned out to be an excellent Illinois squad in getting there. But the Tigers took it on the chin in a meeting with Tennessee, falling by 20 to the then-soaring Vols.

Still, Missouri also made it to 7-1 by winning at Arkansas — not quite the juggernaut then that it is now — and to 13-3 by getting revenge on Tennessee and handing Alabama its first SEC loss, among other triumphs. At that point, the Tigers were a surprising top-10 team headed for a top-three seed.

Things have changed dramatically since. Missouri’s lost four of its last five, and though going down to Arkansas in overtime was no biggie, the other three losses have been to Georgia and Mississippi — twice, in the Rebels’ case. The lone Tigers triumph since Valentine’s Day was a win at South Carolina in which Frank Martin’s team was without Jermaine Cousinard, and that doesn’t help as much as any of the four losses have hurt.

As such, it’s actually Florida — not the team that rose to the national top 10 midway through conference play — that comes into Wednesday’s matchup in third place in the SEC, and with the inside track to a double-bye in the SEC Tournament.

The Gators are 9-5 in SEC competition, and rather well-stationed for a top-four seed even though they can’t catch 12-4 Arkansas for second; winning out would keep them in third, as would winning on Wednesday and seeing LSU lose — to Missouri, naturally — on Saturday. Should Florida lose tonight and LSU beat the colder-weather Tigers on Saturday, its Sunday trip to Tennessee becomes a game that could send the Gators to either the No. 4 or No. 5 seed.

But if Missouri wins out and Florida beats Tennessee, the Gators still make it to the No. 3 seed — and if the Tigers win twice and Florida loses out, the Gators could still fall all the way to the SEC’s sixth seed.

To be clear, Florida winning tonight is the more likely scenario, unless Missouri has one more circling of the wagons in its season. The Gators are on a three-game win streak in which their defense has carried an unspectacular offense, with none of their last three foes cracking a 44 percent Effective Field Goal Percentage or 23 percent from thre; Missouri, which can count only Dru Smith (38 percent) as a reliable three-point shooter, seems unlikely to change that trend, and is also particularly bad at having its shots blocked, which feeds into the strength of Florida’s pack-happy back line.

Florida is also enjoying the best run of play of Tre Mann’s career, as the sophomore’s brought his excellent second year to a new plateau after struggling in losses to South Carolina and Arkansas. Mann averaged 14.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in his last three games, and steadied Florida late against Kentucky, driving and getting his shot very effectively.

That’s been a boon for Florida, which really hasn’t recovered its shooting touch since a mid-February COVID pause that it entered as the SEC’s best-shooting team from the field. But if Mann, Noah Locke, Tyree Appleby, or any other Gators get hot at the same time their defense is at or near its best, this Florida team can go from competent to dangerous in a hurry.