Three-Point Line is Key

The Florida Gators are ninth in the SEC in defending the three-point line in conference games. Mississippi State has made more three-pointers in SEC play than any other team in the league. There you have the biggest single key to Wednesday's game in Starkville. The Bulldogs host the Gators in a game that both teams really need to maintain NCAA tournament hopes.

State is a long shot for the Big Dance with 17-12 overall record, but two wins to end the regular season and two more in the SEC Tournament probably gets them into the discussion. Florida is better off at 21-8, but the Gators have lost four of six games and have to right the ship in a hurry.

The Gators are coming off their first home loss of the season and most believe they are still two wins shy of earning a bid. With just two games left on the schedule that speaks loud and clear about the importance of this one.

Mississippi State is also staggering into this one having lost three in a row and five of their last six. The Bulldogs looked like a team that was sniping at each other during its last outing, a 76-58 embarrassment at home to Auburn. State is essentially a five-man team, getting just 9.5 points a game off the bench against SEC teams. All five starters average in double figures led by Dee Bost (13.9/3.9) who is one of the best freshmen in the SEC. However the key guy is 6-9 shot blocking machine Jarvis Varnado (13.4/8.4). Varnado has blocked 57 shots in SEC games. That's more than seven SEC teams including Florida (37) have swatted away. Varnado's talent is a little less valuable in this game since the Gators don't do much scoring in the paint.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan offered up his assessment of this Mississippi State basketball team.

"We are playing a team on the road that, I think, is very unique in the fact that they've got maybe the best shot-blocker in the country and a great low post player in Vernado," Donovan said. "Then in a lot of ways, (they are) playing four guards around him that really shoot the ball extremely well. I know as of late they have had their ups and downs shooting the ball but there is no question they are an extremely capable three-point shooting team and a team that can make 10 or 15 threes in a game. They have great speed and quickness and have always played well at home."

Florida has won three of its last four trips to Starkville, but this might be the most important game they have played there. Florida has to try and establish some sort of defensive identity and come away with their third SEC road win of the season. Florida opponents have averaged 78 points in the last five games. Donovan was asked about his team's options on that end of the floor.

"When Walter (Hodge) and Erving (Walker) are in the game together it makes us a smaller perimeter team where other teams are shooting over us. When those guys are in together sometimes they can get into spots on the floor where Erving gets matched-up on a guy like (J.P.) Prince and it makes it hard. You have two dilemmas. We can definitely play better on the perimeter defense but you also have to understand that comes at the expense (of) leaving (Dan) Werner and (Alex) Tyus on the backend and are really putting them in a situation where they can get in foul trouble. The balance of trying to do both things is a challenge."

Much has been said and written about this team's physical limitations in terms of length and athleticism. There have also been times when Florida didn't have enough guys who could shoot the ball effectively. Donovan examined that issue and absorbed the blame for his roster's shortcomings.

"You have to have a balance and I think that some of our deficiencies are probably due to a lack of recruitment on my part. Sometimes it's hard to sign guys because you can't forecast the future. Some guys are concerned with and need to be told how much of a role they will have and how much they are going to play so it is a risk for them because some kids coming out of high school want the opportunity to play right away."

Donovan said that desire hurt Gators recruiting while the team was winning back to back NCAA Titles. Since then, early departures have also hurt, including the transfer of Jai Lucas this year.

"We really got caught with a team, last year with four returning players being Walter Hodge, Dan Werner, Marreese Speights, and Jonathan Mitchell and then Mitchell and Speights were gone so it is in a lot of ways a rebuilding process to get the right pieces. There is no question that through recruiting maybe some of the areas that we are lacking is on athleticism. I also think that you can go to an extreme and have really quick, athletic guys but then you don't have shooting and you don't have passing so I always think there is a balance in trying to piece those things together where you can have good shooting, you can have athletic recruits and you can have post presence. Good teams have all of those parts together and certainly athleticism stands out for us."

The only way this team can get more athletic the rest of the way is for Ray Shipman and Kenny Kadji to get more playing time. We'll see if that's the direction Donovan chooses to pursue.

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