“On the road again…”
Cue the Willie Nelson music.
For the second consecutive game and 3rd of four, the Florida Gators are back on the road again, this time in Starkville, Mississippi. Fresh off a second half drubbing of East rival Georgia, the Gators take their SEC leading road show west to face the struggling Mississippi State Bulldogs (7-10, 2-3).
The Gators kept it interesting Wednesday night at Georgia, at least they did for a half anyway. The Gators fell behind 11-2 to start the game as their big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy got into early foul trouble and were largely ineffective in the first half while the offense struggled to knock down baskets. That is, with the exception of Scottie Wilbekin, who dropped his first 6 shots and hit for 13 first half points. Behind his shooting and some timely Georgia turnovers the Gators kept pace throughout the first half yet never led taking a 27-24 deficit into halftime. As has been the case all season, however, the Gators adjusted at halftime and quickly took control of the game to start the second half cruising to their seventh straight victory overall and their fifth straight victory to start the conference schedule and second of the season versus Georgia. Wilbekin matched his career high finishing with a team and game high 17 points.
Mississippi State is on a three game losing streak dropping their latest game to Arkansas 96-70 last Wednesday night. In that one, the Bulldogs allowed a season high for points giving up 96 and hit a season high in turnovers as well with 29. While Florida is the class of the conference tied with Ole Miss for the league lead, Mississippi State is surely at or near the bottom. The famed cowbell school doesn’t need “more cowbell” to quote the SNL comedy sketch they need more scoring and less turnovers.
The Gators have won their 5 SEC contests by an average scoring margin of plus 24.8 ppg allowing a paltry 48 points per game, while the Bulldogs are averaging only 59.6 ppg in conference play and giving up 71.6 a horrid minus 12 ppg scoring margin. The Gators are shooting at a 51% clip in conference games and 40% from three point range while only allowing 35% shooting overall to their opponents. The Bulldogs come in averaging slightly under 40% overall from the field while allowing their opponents to shoot almost 45%. From outside the three point arc State is shooting only 32.6% while allowing opponents to shoot 37%.
The Bulldogs basically lag in every major statistical category including losing 18 turnovers per game while getting only 10 assists per game a terribly negative .55 assist to turnover ratio dead last in the conference while the Gators lead the SEC with a fantastic plus 1.5 ratio. They are dead last in rebounding margin at minus 6.2 rbg. The Gators, on the other hand, are second in the conference in rebound margin at plus 5.6 rpg.
State is led by three players averaging over 10 points per game Roquez Johnson (10.7), Fred Thomas (10.6), and Jalen Steele (10.4). Florida counters with four guys averaging in double figures with Kenny Boynton leading the way at over 13 ppg and Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario averaging over 12 ppg and Patric Young over 10.
The Gators, who haven’t won eight games in a row since 2009, are poised to move to 6-0 in conference play with their 8th straight this evening if they can pull out another road victory. The last time they opened 6-0 in conference play was the 2006-07 season in which they won their second consecutive NCAA tournament championship. The Gators have won 3 of their 5 conference victories on the road and won four straight away games. They get four of their next five in the friendly confines of the O’Connell Center in Gainesville.
The Gators are still banged up with Casey Prather missing his third straight game with a high ankle sprain, Erik Murphy still wearing a rib protector covering up broken ribs, and Will Yeguete playing through tendonitis in his knee. Despite the injuries, the Gators have not missed a beat in any game this season and should continue to play their game tonight.
Billy Donovan will tell you that it is never easy to win on the road in conference play and as was evident in the first half against Georgia last Wednesday, a determined team playing at home can be tough to shake. The Gators must continue to play focused, consistent basketball from the start. If they don’t and they let the Bulldogs hang around, the potential for upset is always there. They are not likely to go 18-0 in conference play so they will probably lose somewhere down the line. However, it shouldn’t be tonight as the Gators simply have way too much talent and depth for the Bulldogs to overcome.
Tip off for tonight’s game from Humphrey Coliseum in Starville is 8 pm and will be broadcast live on ESPN 2. Follow me on Twitter for live updates @HailFloridaHail and check back afterwards for the game recap.