The Florida Gators travel to Starkville, Mississippi, to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. It will be UF’s first time in the Magnolia State this season.
Mississippi State head coach Chris Jans is in his first year with the Bulldogs. Florida head coach Todd Golden is 3-0 against first-year Southeastern Conference head coaches this season.
MSU is on a three-game losing streak against SEC opponents. Mississippi State's conference record currently sits at 1-5; its only victory was a 64-54 win over Ole Miss Jan. 7.
Three of the Bulldogs’ conference losses came against ranked SEC basketball programs. They fell to No. 4 Alabama, No. 16 Auburn and, most recently, No. 9 Tennessee. The Bulldogs lost to the Volunteers twice this year, Jan. 3 and Jan. 17.
Mississippi State is 12-6 overall despite its poor conference record.
Statistically, the Gators have the advantage over MSU. Florida averages 72.9 points per game; the Bulldogs average 65.3 — second worst in the SEC. Mississippi State only leads UF in steals. The Bulldogs are second-best in the conference with 10.1 steals per game.
Defensive standout MSU junior guard Shakeel Moore is a key contributor to the Bulldogs’ success on that end of the court. He averages 2.5 steals per game, second-best in the SEC.
Offensively, the Bulldogs are led by redshirt senior forward Tolu Smith — a 6-foot-11-inch transfer from Western Kentucky.
Smith is a ball-dominant big who scores efficiently from anywhere under the basket. He shoots an SEC second-best 57.2% from the field. Smith rarely leaves the paint on offense and has yet to attempt a shot from beyond the arc this season.
Golden said much of graduate student forward Colin Castleton’s playing time will come against Smith in the low post.
“Tolu is a good athlete,” Golden said. “We’re going to have to do a good job on him, especially early in the game, to not let him get comfortable.”
Florida is coming off of a 54-52 loss against the Texas A&M Aggies Wednesday. In the first half of that game, the Gators only scored 12 points off of 26 shots. UF finished the game shooting 26.2% from the floor, its worst field goal percentage in a game all season.
“We just weren’t aggressive enough,” Golden said. “It wasn’t until the second half that we were really aggressive.”
UF has become known as a defensive-minded team under Golden. Florida held seven of its last eight opponents to 66 or fewer points. Nine of its last 11 opponents shot less than 40% from the field.
The Gators are currently ranked 13th nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
Castleton — who was named SEC Player of the Week Monday — leads the conference with 3.2 blocks per game. He had a double-double in the Gators' loss to TAMU. The Deland, Florida, native produced 14 points and tied his season-high with 13 rebounds.
Castleton is two blocks away from landing in Florida’s top-five in all-time blocks. He currently has 174 blocks at UF.
Sophomore guard Will Richard struggled against Texas A&M, going 1-5 from three and scoring six points. The total ties his fifth-worst scoring game this season.
The Gators and Bulldogs almost mirror one another. Both squads are led in scoring by a forward and occasionally start slow on offense. Richard said it’s just another SEC game despite these similarities.
“We’ll come out and attack them the same way we do any other team in the SEC,” Richard said.
Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Contact Brandon Hernandez at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.