Florida-Mississippi St. Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated January 25, 2013
Although it never led in the opening half of its most recent game, Florida managed to record its latest decisive SEC victory. The Gators may have a good chance to earn another Saturday night. Eighth-ranked Florida will try to add to one of its best starts in conference play when it visits struggling Mississippi State. Florida faced its first halftime deficit in five SEC games Wednesday because of Georgia's buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but the Gators responded by outscoring the home team 40-20 over the final 20 minutes of a 64-47 victory. Scottie Wilbekin matched a career high with 17 points in his team's seventh consecutive win. Florida (15-2, 5-0) has won its league games by an average of 24.8 points, allowing 48.4 per contest and shooting 35.1 percent. The Gators, tied atop the conference with Mississippi, are also shooting 50.4 percent and nearly 40.0 from 3-point range in SEC play. Florida has earned three of its past four conference victories on the road and has won four straight away games. The Gators are on the verge of their first eight-game overall win streak since Nov. 15-Dec. 4, 2009. "It's really difficult to win on the road, and I give our guys credit," coach Billy Donovan said. "When you can win on the road in your conference, I think it's a big deal. ... If you can play over .500 basketball on the road, you've really done a good job." After this game, Florida plays four of five at home. The Gators have started 6-0 or better in the SEC twice. They won their first 11 conference games in 2006-07 en route to their second of back-to-back NCAA titles and opened 7-0 in 2002-03. A matchup with Mississippi State (7-10, 2-3) would appear to give them an excellent opportunity for a third such start, though the Bulldogs have done surprisingly well against Florida recently. Mississippi State has dropped its last three games by a combined 73 points. It's among the least proficient offensive teams in SEC play, scoring 59.6 per game and shooting 39.9 percent, while giving up 71.6 points. The Bulldogs recorded a season high for points allowed in a 96-70 loss at Arkansas on Wednesday and gave up 54 in the second half. They also committed 29 turnovers, their highest total since Nov. 11, 2006. "Our defense is beginning to slide downhill. We have things that need to be fixed," first-year coach Rick Ray said. Freshman guard Fred Thomas, averaging 10.6 points, had a career high-tying 17 in the loss but only two other Bulldogs reached double figures, with neither scoring more than 11. Roquez Johnson, averaging a team-best 10.7 points, was held to single digits for the fourth straight game with nine. He has averaged 5.3 points in that stretch. Then-No. 18 Mississippi State lost its only matchup with then-No. 14 Florida last season, 69-57 on Jan. 28 in Gainesville. It was only their second win in six meetings with the Bulldogs, who have taken the last two matchups and three of four in Starkville. Mississippi State has lost four straight to Top 25 foes and gone 1-5 in the last six visits from ranked teams. The lone win was a 71-64 victory over then-No. 24 Florida on Jan. 29, 2011.
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