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Florida pounds No. 9 West Virginia in SEC/Big 12 opener

John Egbunu, Brandon Watkins

Florida center John Egbunu (15) dunks the ball over West Virginia forward Brandon Watkins (20) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game , Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Ronald Irby)


No. 9 West Virginia got a bit of their own medicine on Saturday afternoon, as Florida forced 19 turnovers and totally flustered the Mountaineers with a pressuring defense in an 88-71 win in Gainesville.

The win came the opener of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, a made-for-TV, Super Bowl-bye-week event that just so happens to be key for the SEC as we head towards the season’s stretch run. In a season with so much uncertainty, there may not be a conference where there are more question marks than the SEC.

If I asked you to rank the teams in the SEC, you’d probably have Texas A&M at the top of the league and Kentucky slotted in second, but beyond that? It’s hard to definitively say that anyone else in the conference is “good”, and that’s under the assumption that Kentucky’s last three games have locked them into the “good” category.

This event allows the SEC a shot at some of the best teams in the Big 12 in friendly environments. LSU gets No. 1 Oklahoma in Baton Rouge. The Aggies get No. 14 Iowa State in College Station. Even Kentucky (at No. 4 Kansas) and and Georgia (at No. 17 Baylor) will have a chance to prove themselves.

And the Gators kicked off the event with a statement.

They didn’t just beat West Virginia. They ran them off the court. They jumped out to a 21-8 lead and went into the half up by 15 points. They forced turnovers and threw down dunks and had the Mountaineers looking totally clueless as they tried to run half court offense.

But perhaps the most important part was that the Gators shot 12-for-20 from three. Entering the day, Florida ranked fourth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric but were just 138th in offensive efficiency in large part because they shoot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc. One hotting shooting night won’t suddenly turn the Gators into the Golden State Warriors -- or even, say, Oklahoma -- but shooting is all about confidence, and it will be interesting to see if this performance will be a shot in the arm. Take Brandone Francis-Ramirez, for example. He was 4-for-34 from three entering the day and he hit all three threes he took against West Virginia.

Regardless, as I wrote here, however you break down what happened on Saturday, this is the kind of win that can be a difference-maker for bubble-bound Florida.