By MATTHEW STEVENS
Rick Stansbury thinks his team’s biggest challenge will be the short turnaround from its 81-74 home loss to Vanderbilt Thursday.
“It is a long season and we need to keep finding ways to get better," said Stansbury. "That is our challenge.”
Florida’s men’s basketball program may disagree as they come to Starkville leading the Eastern Division after winning five of their first six Southeastern Conference games.
The 24th-ranked Gators (16-4, 5-1 in SEC) boast an impressive 7-1 record away from Gainesville and will look to continue that trend with a starting lineup of four upperclassmen.
“On the road, it’s a lot easier to narrow your focus,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Because you’re out of town, because you’re in a hotel, you’re totally focused as a group. There’s a lot of unity and togetherness there.”
The matchup will mark the 11th time a ranked Florida team will visit Humphrey Coliseum with Stansbury roaming the home sidelines with the Gators taking the victory in all but one of those contests.
"I think that anytime you have a level of experience on the road and guys have an understanding of what it's about, it's important," Donovan said. "I also think sometimes on the road it's a little easier to narrow your focus so to speak."
Today’s game (noon, CBS) will be a matchup of the two longest tenured coaches in the SEC with their programs going in opposite directions.
Donovan, who’s going through his 15th season at Florida, is trying to secure himself another SEC East championship to prepare his team for a long postseason run in March. Stansbury, who is in year 13 in Starkville, is just trying to keep the Bulldogs (10-9, 2-3) season from going in the wrong direction.
“We can learn from this game tonight, but we cannot dwell on it,” MSU senior guard Riley Benock said. “We have to put it behind us and get ready for the next game. We know we have another good team coming in, and we really need the win.”
The reason the Bulldogs are in desperation mode is because of a collapse that included Vanderbilt (15-4, 3-2) outscoring MSU 22-8 over the final 8 minutes of play Thursday night.
“We just started playing a little too fast offensively,” MSU senior guard Ravern Johnson said. “We took a lot of quick shots and could not get any rebounds. They got a little momentum, and they just kept feeding off of every missed shot we had. When they got the lead at the
end they never slowed down.”
The memorable play in the loss to Vanderbilt was when Mississippi State junior point guard Brian Bryant threw the ball to his right in front of his own goal and Commodores star Jeffery Taylor jumped the pass and completed an emphatic throw down while being fouled for the
old-fashioned three-point play.
“We threw some lazy passes and fatigue was a problem," Stansbury said. "We just had lazy, fatigued plays down that final stretch where you have to be tougher and we were not.”
Bryant was in the game after checking in for junior Dee Bost after the Bulldogs (10-9, 2-3 in SEC) point guard chipped his front tooth after taking a bruising fall on the floor and had to check out of the game with less than 2 minutes to go.
MSU officials have confirmed Bost has been medically cleared to play today after visiting with doctors late Thursday night. The medical staff was able to bond Bost's two front teeth.
Bost will have a defensive struggle on his hands as Florida is led in scoring by its 5-foot-8 point guard Ervin Walker as the junior averages 14.7 points per game and is one of four UF players putting up double figure numbers.
“As a group, we weren’t connected as a team as we are now,” Walker said. “I feel like we grew up, and now we understand what it takes to win on the road.”