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Florida vs. Mississippi State, Game Thread: Can the Gators start a winning streak?

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Holding off underpowered South Carolina was one thing. Taking on Ben Howland’s Bulldogs will be another.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, the Florida Gators owned Ben Howland.

His UCLA teams? 0-fer against Florida in meetings spanning multiple Final Fours and another NCAA Tournament. His early years at Mississippi State featured defeats at the hands — I mean, I guess they’re hands? — of the Gators, too, with his first three teams dropping all of their meetings with Mike White-coached outfits from 2016 to 2018.

Since 2019, the script has flipped. A late comeback — and the Bulldogs making as many threes as Florida did despite taking 14 fewer triples — secured a 71-68 win in Starkville in 2019, a stellar second half swung a 78-71 win in Gainesville in 2020, and a 12-0 run that bridged halftime was key to a 72-69 win in Starkville a year ago, with Tolu Smith’s 27 points and Abdul Ado’s rim protection certainly helping.

Now, Howland’s team comes to Gainesville for a Wednesday night clash (6:30 p.m., SEC Network or streaming) on a three-game winning streak against Florida, and hoping to use the Gators as a springboard onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Of course, Florida will be defending its own tenuous positioning there. While Florida State taking down Duke on Tuesday night probably goes a long way toward re-establishing the Gators’ trucking of FSU as a truly impressive win, Florida doesn’t have one of those since November, and a victory over Mississippi State would represent its first over a top-100 team in KenPom since its buzzer-beating triumph over Ohio State.

The Gators haven’t been blown off the court or fully outplayed since their baffling and burdensome loss to Texas Southern, but they also failed to get over the hump in losses to Auburn and LSU and coughed up a halftime lead to Alabama. If they allow Mississippi State’s big three of Iverson Molinar, Garrison Brooks, and D.J. Jeffries to get off in this game, they could well end up chasing the Bulldogs, as that triumvirate could go for a combined 50 points in most games.

But the theoretical way to beat Mississippi State isn’t hard: If Florida can at least hold its own on the defensive glass and keep Colin Castleton out of foul trouble at the same time, it’s well-equipped to stop a Howland team that, as ever, will do a lot of working the ball inside and probably not take too many threes. And though the Bulldogs are coming off a huge win over Alabama, that’s about it as quality wins go for them this year, with losses to Louisville, Minnesota, Colorado State, and Ole Miss all coming against teams that don’t quite seem to be on even Florida’s level.

The problem with that? Florida is without Castleton tonight, after an aggravation of a shoulder injury suffered during practice. That will force White to get creative with his lineups and diversify his offense, at a minimum.

Still, both teams should be hungry. Both teams should be confident. And the victor gets an important win — and avoids a painful loss — for NCAA Tournament purposes.

This one should be fun.