Florida-Mississippi St. Preview
Florida appears to be the prohibitive favorite in the SEC, continuing to add to an impressive winning streak.
The third-ranked Gators will try to continue their strong play when they visit Mississippi State on Thursday night.
Florida has won 11 straight following a loss Dec. 2 at Connecticut, recording its longest win streak in one season since a 17-game run by the 2006-07 national championship team. The Gators (17-2, 6-0 SEC) have tightened up defensively in conference play, holding opponents to a 36.9 field-goal percentage compared to 39.7 against non-league foes.
They turned in their most dominant defensive performance with a 67-41 home win over Tennessee on Saturday, holding the Volunteers more than 33 points below their season average.
Tennessee was 15 of 56 (26.8 percent) from the field, including 1 of 19 from 3-point range.
"Tonight, we were so ready for whatever they had to throw at us," said Patric Young, one of four Gators in double figures with 10 points. "We were all locked in."
Florida held Jordan McRae, who entered among the conference leaders with 19.2 points per game, to five points on 1 of 15 shooting, with point guard Scottie Wilbekin largely responsible for his struggles.
"Coach (Billy Donovan) had a reoccurring theme of being desperate - desperate as if this was the national championship game," Young said. " ... When you can hold Jordan McRae to five points and he gets frustrated, your team did something right."
Michael Frazier II was named the SEC player of the week, tallying 17 points after scoring 18 in a win at Alabama two nights earlier. He had been shut out while playing 19 minutes at Auburn in the previous week.
The Gators will still be without highly regarded freshman forward Chris Walker as they seek their fourth straight win over Mississippi State, though they won't have to wait much longer.
Walker, who won the dunk contest at last year's McDonald's All-American game, will finally be eligible to play Tuesday against Missouri after being cleared by the NCAA on Wednesday. The NCAA determined that he received preferential treatment, and he will have to donate the $270 he received from agents to a charity of his choice and serve 80 hours of community service.
Florida had dropped three of four trips to Starkville, Miss., prior to an 82-47 victory there last season. Two weeks later, the Gators blew out the Bulldogs in an 83-58 home win Feb. 9.
Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) got only 30 points from its starters in an 82-63 loss at Mississippi on Saturday. Unlike Florida, the Bulldogs' defense has dipped in SEC play, giving up 77.5 points per game after they allowed 65.5 per contest during their non-conference schedule.
"Our guys didn't come out and execute on the defensive end and that is very disappointing," coach Rick Ray told the team's website.
Ray also later issued an apology after replays showed that he directed comments at Rebels guard Marshall Henderson in the game's closing moments.
Leading scorer Craig Sword (13.9 ppg) had just four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He was a combined 6 of 19 in two losses to Florida last season.
Ray's club has lost its four road games by an average of 19.7 points, but the Bulldogs are 11-1 at home while averaging 73.9 points - 10.1 more than their average on the road.
Mississippi State has dropped its last 13 contests against top five teams - including two against Florida - since a win over then-No. 5 Oklahoma on Dec. 28, 2002.
Florida leads the all-time series 60-49.