Mississippi St.-Florida Preview

The Associated Press

Florida is coming off its first defeat in almost two months and will be without its top reserve for at least the rest of the regular season.

On a positive note, a visit from Mississippi State might be exactly what the Gators need to get back on track.

The second-ranked Gators look to rebound from their worst loss of the season by handing the Bulldogs an eighth straight defeat in Saturday's SEC matchup.

In a stunning 80-69 loss at Arkansas on Tuesday, Florida (18-3, 8-1) looked nothing like the team that won its previous 10 games by an average of 25.0 points.

"Sometimes you need a reality to check to let you know you can be beat," guard Kenny Boynton said. "Better now than later."

The Gators rank among the national leaders in points allowed at 52.4 per game and field-goal percentage defense at 36.7. The Razorbacks, though, made 15 of their first 20 shots en route to shooting 49.1 percent and handing Florida its first loss since Dec. 22.

"Just because you've done something in the past, just because our defensive numbers have looked like they have - every game is different," said coach Billy Donovan, whose team trailed by as many as 23 in the first half before yielding a season-high point total.

Mike Rosario scored 15 while Scottie Wilbekin added 14 points with seven rebounds and four assists, but the Gators shot 41.1 percent and committed 16 turnovers.

Backup forward Will Yeguete played one minute before feeling a pop in his knee. Second on the team with 6.3 rebounds per game, the junior will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and hopes to be ready for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

"I feel more disappointed for him because I think he has worked hard,'' Donovan said. "He's a guy that does things for our team that not a lot of guys do. He's a great defender, great rebounder."

Already lacking frontcourt depth with junior swingman Casey Prather trying to find his rhythm after a concussion and high-ankle sprain, Donovan could give little-used freshman DeVon Walker more minutes at power forward.

Excelling amidst adversity has been common for the Gators this season, as Wilbekin, Rosario and forward Erik Murphy have played hurt.

Rosario has averaged 14.7 points and shot 54.8 percent in three games since going 1 of 8 and scoring five points in an 82-47 win at Mississippi State on Jan. 26. Murphy and Boynton each scored 18 while Wilbekin added 13 with nine assists as Florida shot 55.4 percent.

The Gators held the Bulldogs (7-14, 2-7) to 19 first-half points and 32.7 percent shooting overall.

"(Florida has) the best players in the SEC and the most talented players in the SEC, but their willingness to share the basketball is by far their best attribute,'' Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. "Our team needs to learn from that."

The learning process has been difficult for the Bulldogs, who are in danger of dropping eight straight for the first time since a nine-game slide Jan. 17-Feb. 18, 1987. The Bulldogs, who lost 93-75 at Mississippi on Wednesday, have averaged 58.4 points and shot 39.9 percent in the last seven contests.

Freshman guard Fred Thomas averages a team-leading 10.6 points. He had season highs of 19 and seven steals against the Gators.

Florida is 10-0 at home, where it's won two straight and six of eight against Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs will be without guard Jalen Steele, who was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. The junior is averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.

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