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Florida vs. LSU, Game Thread: Can Gators dig deep to avoid historic hole in SEC play?

Florida’s early January tour of the canopy of the SEC’s jungle ends tonight. And the Gators could really use a win.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The plight facing the Florida Gators men’s basketball team on Wednesday night was summed up and headlined well by Zach Abolverdi earlier in the day: Florida must win its Wednesday night meeting with LSU (7 p.m., ESPN2 or streaming) to avoid its first 0-3 start to SEC play since 1980, when Florida went 5-22 and 2-16 in league contests.

And that would be an ignominious distinction for these Gators to hold, no doubt, though their chances of going 5-22 are nil and their odds of going 2-16 against the SEC slim.

But the bigger challenge as I see it is that this Florida team has maybe its second-best remaining opportunity to secure a big win tonight — an LSU program that it has played tough in recent years at home — and can ill afford to miss that chance if it wants to make the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

An 0-3 mark in SEC play, of course, is just an 0-3 stretch to begin conference play by different words — one that would, for Florida, entail losses to Alabama, Auburn, and now LSU teams that seem quite likely to finish in the top four of the conference alongside Kentucky. All three have held top-15 rankings and been within the KenPom top 20 at the time of tipoff.

And even in an SEC that has been improving year-over-year for the last half-decade or more, such a stretch is unusual: Florida has only seen three consecutive SEC foes in the top-20 of KenPom twice in the KenPom era that dates to the 2001-02 season. In 2006, Florida topped three such teams in the SEC Tournament en route to its first national title; in 2018, Florida followed a trip to KenPom No. 8 Kentucky with games against No. 11 Auburn and No. 10 Tennessee, losing all three.

But this is the SEC these Gators play in, one in which they are already well back in the conference race by virtue of their losses to the Yellowhammer State schools. And LSU has proven itself a worthy member of the nation’s elite, at least for now, thanks to a spectacular defense that makes use of a rotation of long-limbed rim protectors and shuts down the paint.

If LSU, tops in America in adjusted defensive efficiency and in the top 10 in all of two-point percentage allowed, three-point percentage allowed, free throw percentage allowed, block percentage, and steal percentage, is bad at any one thing, it is allowing threes: Opponents have taken nearly half their shots from beyond the arc against the Tigers, with more than half of them hoisting more than 25 triples.

And while LSU has allowed foes to make just 26.6 percent of their threes, that figure is dragged downward by bad nights from fully outmanned Southland Conference in-state foes McNeese State and Northwestern State, who combined to go 8-for-52 from three against the Tigers, and by outings from Belmont and Penn State teams that smartly took 39 and 38 threes against LSU, respectively, but hit just 10 and 12.

So if Florida wanted to get hot from distance? Now would be both a good time and a good opportunity.

And if Florida wants to secure a win over a top-tier SEC school, this would also seem like its best shot. LSU, Auburn, and Kentucky all still have to visit Gainesville, but Auburn seems like it may be the nation’s best team and Kentucky won’t arrive until Senior Night, when John Calipari’s teams have traditionally fully gelled.

LSU is also still figuring out its offense, which lags well behind its defense and had been woeful in its own rugged start to SEC play — games against Auburn, Kentucky, and Tennessee in sequence. The Tigers and Wildcats held Will Wade’s strong-ass teams in check, while it took good shooting and a lot of trips to the line to get to a better performance against the Vols.

And Xavier Pinson, the Missouri transfer who has led the Tigers’ backcourt, will miss this game after what looked like a serious knee injury late against Tennessee. Though freshman Brandon Murray has been good alongside Pinson, he hasn’t done a ton of playmaking, and sophomore Eric Gaines simply hasn’t broken through just yet. Florida’s own experienced backcourt will have a chance to put its stamp on this game, and stage an upset in the process.

But if the Gators don’t, and fall to 0-3 in the SEC? They will be tasked with digging deeper than they already have and digging out of a hole that might doom their tournament dreams.