Florida Versus Mississippi State Basketball Preview

Following a dissapointing loss on the road against Texas A&M where the Gators couldn’t muster enough offense to capitlize on a tremendous defensive performance they’ll look to regroup before Saturday when they take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.


While both teams have had their struggles in conference play the Gators (10-8, 3-3 SEC) remain well ahead of the Bulldogs (12-6, 1-5 SEC) who currently sit 12th in conference standings. While it might be easy to look at Mississippi State’s record and think they are playing poor basketball in the last few weeks, it’s important to look at the context of the schedule. The SEC did Mississippi State no favors when it came to the schedule in the early weeks of the season, giving them arguably the most challenging slate of anyone in the league. Mississippi State has already played Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee twice, and with Alabama and Tennessee the two favorites to win the league in the eyes of most prognosticators, that’s about as difficult a start as you can have to the SEC season.


That isn’t to say the Bulldogs haven’t struggled, and in addition to losing to some of the top teams in the league they have also dropped a game to Georgia that they’d like to have back.


Mississippi State is in their first season under Chris Jans who came to Starkville after a successful run at New Mexico State. As many coaches do in their first season at a high major school, he scheduled rather light in non-conference play. That allowed the Bulldogs to reel off one of the largest winning streaks in college basketball, starting the season 11-0. Though overall their non-conference schedule was on the easier side they did grab neutral site wins over Marquette and Utah which are solid resume pieces. Unfortunately, their non-conference season ended with a loss against a quality Drake team, and when you add in their 1-5 SEC mark the Bulldogs will enter Saturday’s game 1-6 in their last 7 games—so they are desperate for a quality win.


In a lot of ways Mississippi State has mirrored Florida in terms of what they have had success with and what they have struggled with. The Bulldogs have been suffocating on the defensive end being disruptive, physical, and quick—but on the offensive end things have been a major struggle. As of January 19th the Bulldogs are an incredible 9th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings—but they’re all the way down at 173rd in adjusted offensive efficiency.


Similarly, the Gators currently sit at 121st in offense and 13th in defense.


Both teams are similarly productive on one side of the floor, but one major difference is while the Gators will try to run opportunistically to get easier buckets in transition as they know they struggle in the half court, Mississippi State is content to slow the game down as slow as possible. 


For that reason, you can expect an absolute rock fight on Saturday.


While the issues the Bulldogs have offensively are numerous, one of the most glaring issues they face is a distinct lack of shooting. The Bulldogs are currently 345th in the country in three-point percentage, a number that makes it hard for just about any team to win high level games. Their shooting issues are also present at the free throw line where they are 359th in the country in efficiency, demonstrating just how much they struggle to convert anything offensively that isn’t around the rim. 


Because of their high number of misses they know to be aggressive when it comes to offensive rebounding and they have been efficient in that area, ranking 15th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. 


Much of that offensive rebounding success is due to center Tolu Smith who is putting together a stellar season averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds per game. The 6’11”, 245 pound Smith is in his fourth season of college basketball and third at Mississippi State and he has proven regularly that he can hang with the elite big men of the SEC and even get the best of his matchup from time to time. Smith has also notoriously had huge games against Colin Castleton and the Gators in recent years scoring 17 points and adding 6 rebounds last year and then, more notably, having a massive 27 point, 14 rebound game two seasons ago that stood as one of the most impressive games an opponent has had against Florida in recent years. Smith is an intelligent player who stays within his skill set and is dedicated to playing bully ball around the rim and once again he and Castleton will have spirited one on one battles underneath both rims whether on post ups or when rebounds are available. 


Another player to be aware of is returning wing DJ Jeffries, an athletic 6’7” wing who struggles to convert from the outside but has ball handling abilities and is excellent going downhill towards the rim. He will primarily play the “3” with 6’7”, 225 pound Cameron Matthews and 6’8”, 220 pound Tyler Stevenson at the “4” making for a long, athletic frontcourt that might be difficult for the Gators to match up with at times.


This long frontcourt allows the Bulldogs to play the type of defense that Coach Jans wants and it has been effective for them on their way to an outstanding defensive production so far this season. The Bulldogs are fast, physical, and aggressive on defense and they hunt for steals aggressively knowing that if they shoot a gap and miss—there is length and athleticism behind them to cover up the mistake while they recover. 


The Bulldogs are currently 3rd in the country in steal percentage and Florida’s perimeter players will have a long night trying to not only get quality shots but also not turn the ball over against this defense. 


Even though Mississippi State is aggressive on the perimeter they aren’t soft on the inside and have done an excellent job of protecting the hoop and allowing nothing easy around the rim. The tradeoff for that is that they have given up a lot of threes, something they’ll likely be happy to do against a Florida team that hasn’t shot the ball well in SEC play.


The key to this game is pretty clear for both teams. These are two squads that are excellent defensively and poor offensively, and whichever team is able to get some kind of offensive rhythm is likely going to put themselves in a position to win. 


This game takes place January 21st at 8:30 PM ET and will be televised on SEC Network.

Eric Fawcett
Eric is a basketball coach and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has been found at NBA international properties, ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @ericfawcett_.