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Florida vs. Mississippi State, Game Thread: Gators get bubbling Bulldogs at SEC Tournament

Florida needs a miracle to make the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State might not even need a win.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Barring a spectacular run to the SEC Tournament title, the Florida Gators are not going to make the NCAA Tournament. Unless they lose — and badly, by 30 or more — today, and the bubble contracts, Mississippi State Bulldogs should not be sweating their inclusion on Selection Sunday too hard.

So motivation should be no problem for Florida’s Colin Castleton-less band of brothers in Nashville on Thursday afternoon.

The problem is that Mississippi State should find ways to exploit Castleton’s absence even more than it did his presence.

Castleton, recently voted a First-Team All-SEC selection, generally ceded size or strength to many of the league’s bigs, but had a significant advantage in agility that often made up for those deficits. That was never really the case against Tolu Smith, who has all three of those traits and got 27 points and 14 boards in his first meeting with Castleton two seasons ago.

Smith was better held in check in Florida’s last two meetings with Mississippi State, however — and both were Gators wins, though Florida’s 61-59 escape in Starkville was one of the season’s narrowest victories. Crucially, Smith was just 5-for-15 from the field despite pulling down seven offensive boards, with Castleton’s defense helping cancel out his own 5-for-14 day.

Without Castleton, though, Smith — coming off 27 and 11 against Vanderbilt, which did not have Liam Robbins — is likely to run roughshod against the defense of Jason Jitoboh and Aleks Szymczyk, neither of whom is fast enough to stay in front of him. And that’s probably going to force Florida to get a big day from someone else — Riley Kugel, most likely — to keep up.

If they do, the Gators will live to play another day in pursuit of March Madness. If not, well, there’s always the NIT.