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Florida vs. Ole Miss, Game Thread: Can Colin Castleton’s return lift Gators?

Florida’s worst loss without Colin Castleton came to Ole Miss. Now the big man is back. Is that trouble for the Rebels?

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

For the Florida Gators, hopes of making the NCAA Tournament have been hanging by a thread for the better part of the last few weeks, thanks to an injury to Colin Castleton’s left shoulder that was keeping their do-everything big man benched.

But now, just in time for a rematch against an Ole Miss team that took Florida’s lunch money in Oxford, he’s bac

Castleton’s surprise return to Florida’s rotation — and, hell, starting lineup — comes not a moment too soon, as the Gators would really have their work cut out for them if they were to take another loss to Mike White’s alma mater today. The Rebels have won three of four, following their triumph over Florida with wins over a feisty Kansas State squad and slumping LSU, but their own chances of making a run at March Madness would seem to rely on either an improbable win streak to close the regular season or prevailing in the SEC Tournament.

And that got harder for them this week, as freshman point guard Daeshun Ruffin was diagnosed with a season-ending knee injury suffered against LSU. Ruffin had missed much of the Rebels’ non-conference schedule and started the year unevenly, but he was coming on, torching Florida for 21 points and six assists and making it to double figures in each of Ole Miss’s last four outings. Without him, Kermit Davis is down to Tye Fagan and Austin Crowley as his primary ball-handlers — and neither one has had as many as five assists in a game since December began, to give a sense of how fully Ruffin had assumed point guard duties.

It seems quite possible that it will be Ruffin’s absence and not Castleton’s return that will actually be the most signfiicant injury-related storyline on this Saturday, in fact. Florida has largely shown that it at least knows what it wants to do with or without Castleton on the floor; Ole Miss is now suddenly reverting to what it was when Ruffin was unavailable early on, but the Rebels also don’t have Jarkel Joiner or Robert Allen like they did back in November.

And while Florida could make just four of 29 threes again, matching its woeful output in Oxford, it stands to reason that the Gators will shoot better in Gainesville, and will probably also be able to harass Ole Miss into more than 10 turnovers and four steals, numbers too small to meaningfully fuel Florida’s running game.

Regression to the mean alone would have been a heartening thing to look for from Florida in this game — and adding to it Castleton’s return and Ruffin’s unavailability, Florida should win this game, hold its place in the NCAA Tournament pecking order on the better side of the bubble, and build on the wins it has been able to piece together without its best player.

Should, of course, only means so much to this team.