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Florida vs. Alabama, Game Thread: Gators get one last big chance

The problem with big opportunities? They’re also big challenges.

Syndication: Tuscaloosa News Gary Cosby Jr.-Tuscaloosa News / USA TODAY NETWORK

Florida’s four-game gauntlet of arguably its toughest foes this years comes to an end tonight in Tuscaloosa, where the Gators will meet SEC leader Alabama.

And while the past three games have been an emotional reunion with Keyontae Johnson on the road, a visit from the then-No. 1 in KenPom, and an ever-daunting trip to Rupp, taking on the Crimson Tide is probably the toughest game of the four.

Mostly, that’s because of how Brandon Miller has transformed this team into Nate Oats’s best in his time with the Tide. The presumptive national freshman of the year is a fringe national player of the year candidate, too, and his elite shooting and excellent scoring has supercharged what was already a dangerous, free-flowing, three-happy offense.

Alabama is first nationally in tempo, maximizing Miller’s talents — and those of a strong roster around him — by getting up threes, layups, and dunks by the dozen. The Tide has taken fewer than 25 threes just eight times in 23 games this season, two of them losses, and has made 10 or more 11 times — and 19 or more three times.

Their defense thrives on this speed, as well, with foes largely finding themselves being swept to sea by the barrage of threes and unable to turn over the Tide in a meaningful way and turning to three-heavy approaches that play into Alabama’s strengths. They’re not invulnerable — good defense and hot shooting helped UConn and Oklahoma, both teams that Florida has seen this year, handle Alabama, and Mississippi State’s rugged defense has made the Tide work hard for their two wins — but they are very, very good, probably the best of this quartet of teams the Gators will have seen after tonight.

And yet: Florida’s been in all three of these games so far, at least to the extent that a run at Kansas State early in the second half kept the Gators in that game briefly. They have their own superb defense, and are getting some of Colin Castleton’s best form of late. If they avert their usual slow start and stay within shouting distance, they could well put pressure on Alabama not unlike Mississippi State did in a 66-63 loss.

But those are tall tasks for this team against average squads — and Alabama is far from that. Summoning the resolve and execution to serve up a season-best effort might be what is necessary to get this sort of road win.