Mississippi State brings a 22-9 record into the game after taking a grind it out 76-65 win over a Georgia team that proved far tougher than expected in the first round of the tournament. It took a 25-9 run by Mississippi State in the second half to break the game open. Georgia was within four of Mississippi State at the half, 39-35.
For the Bulldogs to struggle in round one is perhaps a blessing for the Gators who come into the game well rested after a first round bye. The SEC tournament is a marathon for any team to win, much harder for those teams that have to play the first round on Thursday. The extra day of rest could prove to be a key factor in a game that figures to be physical.
"You can't even think about it when you get into the second and third day in a row," said Matt Walsh. "But it is a grind and you just have to adjust. Having the first day off helps a lot."
When MSU got physical with the Gators in Starkville, Florida had no answers. Freshman center Al Horford got into early foul trouble, frustrated that he couldn't get inside against 7-1 Marcus Campbell, who blocked seven shots. On the perimeter, Walsh, who was still recovering from an injured ankle that cost him four games, was harassed on the perimeter by Shane Power. Walsh managed only five points in the game, but a more telling stat is that he managed to get only five shots off.
David Lee had a 15-point, 12-rebound effort in the game and Anthony Roberson scored 17 points, but the Gators went ice cold down the stretch and MSU won easily.
Since that game, Florida has not only toughened up the defense but also has delivered a quite unexpected physical presence. The last four games of the season saw the Gators challenged by teams looking to take Florida out by slowing down the offense and playing it possession by possession in a half court game.
"There's no question we would have lost games like this last year," said Matt Walsh earlier in the week. "If we weren't hitting our shots on the perimeter, we had no hope. Now, we're not afraid to play it either way. We love to run, but if we have to slow it down, I think we're comfortable that way, too."
In the last four games of the season, the Gators never scored more than 69 points but they didn't have to score a lot. The defense responded with outstanding efforts. Vandy managed just 61 and South Carolina 65. Georgia took the physical game to an extreme and while the Bulldogs held Florida to 50 points, they managed only 38. In Sunday's 53-52 thriller at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Florida held Kentucky to its lowest scoring total of the season.
Not only did Florida win the grind it out games, the Gators showed they wouldn't back down physically. When Georgia tried to hammer away at the Gators, Adrian Moss came off the bench to deliver a pair of lethal elbows, one in the first half, the other in the second. Both times he was called for fouls, one of them a flagrant, but the hard hits delivered the right message that Florida wasn't about to be pushed around.
"Adrian Moss and Chris Richard have become very physical for us," said Lee, named first team All-SEC by the coaches. "That's something we really need."
Moss didn't play in the first game with Mississippi State, out with back problems that have sidelined him much of the season. He's been playing limited but very effective minutes in the last eight games.
"He gives us a very physical presence in the post," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan. "He's been able to help us a lot by getting in there and banging."
What the increased defensive intensity and emphasis on physical play has done for Florida is to give the Gators new ways to win games.
"If we weren't hitting from the outside last year, there was no chance for us to win," said Lee. "I think we've proven in the last few games especially that we can do whatever we have to do to win games."
This is what Donovan was preaching at the beginning of the season and kept drilling into this team. During December and through the first half of January, they were still learning, but now they've figured it out.
"I think they are beginning to understand more and more what we were preaching at the beginning of the year that when their offense leaves them, there are more ways to win games," said Donovan after Sunday's win against Kentucky. "Even when our offense isn't there, we can find a way to win."
Florida will be expecting Mississippi State's best physical foot forward Friday afternoon. Last year, that was a recipe for instant disaster. The way the Gators have played the past few games, it's a challenge they will welcome in Atlanta.