January 31, 2014 10:39:57 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- Florida men's basketball coach Billy Donovan likes the development of Mississippi State's program.
Donovan is 3-0 against MSU second-year coach Rick Ray, but his team struggled for about 25 minutes en route to a 62-51 victory Thursday night. The margin of victory was significantly less than last season, when Florida beat MSU by an average of 30 points in its two meetings.
"I said this last year, I think Rick's got a really good nucleus," Donovan said of MSU's sophomores Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, and Fred Thomas. "Those guys have gotten a lot better. I know he probably wants to see them play a little better on the road, but those are steps in progress, and progress those guys will make over time. They are a much better team than a year ago."
Last season, MSU (13-7, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) lost to Florida 82-47 on Jan. 26, 2013, in Starkville and 83-58 on Feb. 9, 2013, in Gainesville, Fla. On Thursday night, MSU led 30-29 with 18 minutes, 28 seconds remaining.
"When you've got a bunch of freshmen out there in this league it's hard, but these guys have got a lot more experience under their belt," Donovan said. "It's pretty much the same team, but they've all progressed and gotten better."
Ray said he hopes his team will be able to replicate the unselfishness and team chemistry Donovan has used to build a program he expects to make a Final Four run this season.
"That team is a model for how you should play basketball because they share the basketball," Ray said. "I think they are a model of unselfishness, sharing the basketball, and passing the basketball."
Florida senior forward Casey Prather scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had a season-high eight assists. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith had nine rebounds to help the Gators (17-2, 7-0) survive a sour effort from sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II.
"Florida is a great team, (and) they are 18-2, the No. 3 team in the nation (because) they rarely make any mistakes," MSU freshman point guard IJ Ready said. "We are capable of playing with anybody, but everybody has to bring it."
Thomas goes scoreless for the first time
In a 26-second period, MSU sophomore guard Fred Thomas picked up two early fouls and was forced to sit next to MSU coach Rick Ray on the home bench for more than 17 minutes of the first half.
"We were still in the game without Gavin (Ware) having a big night, without Fred having a big night, and Roquez (Johnson) did not have very many points either," Ready said.
Thomas took only two 3-pointers and had two assists in 18 minutes. It was the first time Thomas hasn't scored in a game this season. The 6-foot-5 wing lost his starting lineup position to Dre Applewhite early in the season, but Thomas regained his spot after Applewhite elected to transfer.
MSU's drought against ranked opponents continues
The last time MSU defeated a top-10 opponent, Gavin Ware was 9 years old. The Bulldogs are 0-6 against ranked teams in the past two years under Ray.
The last time MSU defeated a ranked opponent in Humphrey Coliseum was a 71-64 upset of Florida on Jan. 29, 2011. The last time MSU men's basketball defeated a top-10 opponent was a 54-45 victory against No. 5 Oklahoma on Dec. 28, 2002.
The loss was MSU's first at home in the conference this season. The Bulldogs have lost back-to-back games for the first time.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.