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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Wednesday, February 22, 2017 at 12:42 PM

The Florida Gators are coming on strong after an 81-66 thumping of South Carolina last night. The Gators have won nine in a row and are set up for a big game at Kentucky on Saturday (2 PM ET, CBS) where they will meet for the lead in the SEC race and to move up in the fight for NCAA Tournament seed position. More importantly, Florida is still a potential value bet in the race for the national championship.

Florida is priced at 28-1 to win the NCAA title in Phoenix on April 3. They’re at an interesting spot on the board right now. That price essentially makes them the #11 team in the country according to the futures market. The 10th-best team (a tie between Arizona, Louisville and Oregon) are all 14-1. So Florida is more or less behind the arbitrary cutoff point, where a big gulf separates the favorites from the darkhorses.

It’s safe to say that dynamic changes in a hurry if the Gators win in Rupp Arena on Saturday, so important evaluations have to be made by college basketball bettors right now. Here’s what Florida has going for them…

*The statistical rankings at the respected website KenPom, say Florida the fourth-best team in the country. If you think KenPom is even in the ballpark that makes the Gators a value bet at 28-1.

*While it’s easy to dismiss the caliber of competition in the SEC, Florida’s schedule strength ranks 16th in the country. They stepped out in non-conference games and challenged themselves with Duke, Gonzaga and Florida State. And keep in mind that ranking is going to go up after a road game in Lexington.

*Florida plays defense, ranking fourth in the country in defensive efficiency. That defense was on display last night, as they held South Carolina to 39 percent shooting from the field and pulled away in the second half.

Thus, we’re talking about a team that respected computer models think highly of, that is battle-tested and is excellent on the defensive end. All that’s a good reason to jump on a 28-1 price. But there’s a flip side…

*It’s one thing to play good teams and another to beat them—Florida lost to Duke, Gonzaga and Florida State. The most impressive part of the Gators’ resume is an 88-66 thumping of Kentucky at home on February 4. We still need to find out though, if that was more about Wildcat shortcomings or Gator strengths. Saturday will give us answers, but again, value may be lost if you wait until that result is in.

*Florida lacks a clear playmaker. Chris Chiozza is the leading assist man on the team and he’s seventh in terms of minutes played per game. College basketball, especially in the NCAA Tournament is driven by guards who control tempo.

*Michael White, in his second year since stepping in for Billy Donovan, is an unknown commodity as a head coach. Especially in the NCAA Tournament, where he’ll make his first appearance this March.

What way do you play it? I have to reserve my recommendations for clients, but I’ll tell you one thing—I’ll be monitoring the results from Lexington very closely.  

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