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UF at South Carolina delivers Top 25 meeting of SEC surprises in men’s basketball

GAINESVILLE — The Florida basketball team’s visit to South Carolina was expected to be afterthought as college basketball’s most high-profile month tipped off.

Instead, the Gators and the Gamecocks enter March ranked in the Top 25, hanging around in a heated SEC race and pushing to position themselves for a deep postseason run.

UF coach Todd Golden views Saturday’s noon matchup as a no-lose situation for a squad picked eighth among 14 SEC teams during the preseason after a 16-17 debut season in Gainesville for the 38-year-old.

“It’s a great game this time of year,” Golden said Friday. “Not much you can lose by going out there, but you can win a lot; you can gain a lot.”

The No. 24 Gators (20-8, 10-5) have won nine of 11 games since a lopsided 85-66 loss at Tennessee, which is tied with Alabama atop the conference standings. But UF’s two defeats were heartbreakers away from Gainesville during which it led by double digits during the second half before losing by a point at Texas A&M and by five in overtime at Alabama.

“This game is going to be an equal challenge to those,” Golden said. “It would be great if we can obtain a lead like we had and then finish it, like we had not been able to in the last two.”

No. 18 South Carolina (23-5, 11-4) is one of the nation’s surprises under Lamont Paris, the leading candidate for SEC Coach of the Year. After going 11-21 in 2022-23, the Gamecocks were picked to finish last in the league. But behind a hard-nosed half-court style, South Carolina defeated Tennessee and Kentucky and showed its mettle during a 70-68 win Wednesday at Texas A&M.

“They’re incredibly physical at all five spots,” Golden said. “It’s not just the front court. It’s the guards. They’re all really, really tough and they’re really together as a team.”

The Gators have developed chemistry and a rock-solid rotation despite adding nine newcomers during the offseason.

Fifth-year senior transfer point guard Zyon Pullin has led the way, scoring in double figures in 27 of 28 games and sitting second nationally with a 4.07 assist-to-turnover ratio (122 to 30).

Pullin’s transition from UC-Riverside has been seamless while his mental toughness sets the tone. After scoring just 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting Feb. 24 against Vanderbilt, Pullin scored 21 points during Wednesday’s home win against Missouri.

“His floor game is just something that gives you a lot of confidence and comfort in the sidelines,” Golden said. “Guards hard, leads, does a good job of never getting too high and too low.”

One of four double-figure UF scorers, Pullin has plenty of help. He and fifth-year transfer power forward Tyrese Samuel combined for 23 of their team’s final 25 points against Missouri.

To have a shot at South Carolina, the Gators will need everyone clicking.

Versatile junior point guard Meechie Johnson averages 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3 assists for the Gamecocks. Meanwhile, graduate transfer power forward B.J. Mack, a handful at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, averages 13.6 points and 4.8 rebounds while 6-foot-7, 231-pound freshman Collin Murray-Boyles chips in an average 9.7 points — on 60.1% shooting — and 5.1 boards.

“Those guys are going to be a lot to handle on the [low] block,” Golden said.

But South Carolina’s strong point is defense. Paris’ squad allows an SEC-low 65.2 points per game.

If the Gators are able to grind out a win, it would be another boost to their postseason hopes. A top-four seed in the SEC Tournament earns a team two coveted byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round March 15 in Nashville.

“We’re jockeying for one of those spots,” Golden said. “There’s a lot that can happen between now, and there’s a lot of different ways that it could shake out. I just point to tomorrow being one of those opportunities where if we get it done, we’re gonna put ourselves in a really good spot down the stretch.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com