Hoping to keep pace atop the SEC standings, the eighth-ranked Florida Gators hit the road for Saturday night's clash with the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Florida is a stellar 15-2 on the season, and it has won all five of its conference bouts in matching surprising Ole Miss (16-2, 5-0) in the race for the SEC title. Since losing two of three on the road at Arizona (65-64) and Kansas State (67-61) prior to Christmas, the Gators have reeled off seven consecutive victories, the most recent of which being a 64-47 rout of Georgia in Athens on Wednesday night -- UF's second win over the 'Dawgs in a two-week span.
While Florida has run roughshod through its first handful of conference foes, Mississippi State has had a tougher time in dropping three of its first five SEC encounters to fall to 7-10 overall. Currently, the Bulldogs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and their most recent setback occurred on Wednesday night at Arkansas, 96-70. All three losses have been by double figures, which is somewhat surprising considering the team is being outscored by only 3.7 ppg on average. MSU is 5-2 at home this season.
Florida leads the all-time series with Mississippi State, 58-49, but the Bulldogs have had the better of the relationship in Starkville over the years (34-20).
MSU has won four of the last six meetings, and six of the last seven have been decided by single digits. The teams get the chance to do it all again in two weeks when the Gators welcome the Bulldogs to Gainesville.
Scottie Wilbekin was nearly perfect in shooting 7-of-9 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, as he tallied a game-high 17 points in helping Florida overcome a slow start to power past Georgia earlier this week. Kenny Boynton added 14 points, Erik Murphy had 13, and Will Yeguete came off the bench to grab 11 rebounds for the Gators, who made good on 45.1 percent of their total shots, which included an 8-of-20 effort from beyond the arc. Defensively, UF held its host to 41.0 percent field goal efficiency while goading the Bulldogs into 17 turnovers. The Gators were guilty of only seven miscues themselves. Boynton (13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg) continues to pace a quartet of double-digit scorers for coach Billy Donovan's squad, as he is joined by fellow starters Murphy (12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Mike Rosario (12.2 ppg) and Patric Young (11.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Thanks to an efficient offense (73.2 ppg) and the nation's third-ranked scoring defense (51.4 ppg), the Gators rank second nationally in scoring margin (21.8).
Fred Thomas scored 17 points, Gavin Ware chipped in 11 and Craig Sword had 10, but those efforts weren't nearly enough as Mississippi State was dismantled at Arkansas on Wednesday night, losing by 26. As a team, the Bulldogs shot just 40.7 percent from the floor, compared to 49.3 percent for the Razorbacks. The one glaring negative for MSU was the fact that it turned the ball over a staggering 29 times, leading to 42 points for the home team. Sword and Thomas combined for 15 giveaways. First-year coach Rick Ray has three double-digit scorers on which to rely, although none averages more the 10.7 ppg belonging to Roquez Johnson. Thomas (10.6 ppg) and Jalen Steele (10.4 ppg), and even guys like Sword (9.6 ppg) and Gavin Ware (8.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) all have the ability to produce when called upon. Mississippi State connects on only 40.8 percent of its field goal attempts, which includes a dismal 29.1 percent showing from 3-point range, and it is 67.7 percent accurate at the foul line, all of which lead to a lackluster scoring average of 62.1 ppg. At the defensive end, the Bulldogs yield 65.8 ppg, with foes shooting 41.5 percent from the floor, including 35.0 percent from beyond the arc. MSU commits nearly 18 turnovers per outing.