Florida has its work cut out for it to make it to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

The Florida Gators enter the NCAA Tournament as a 6-seed in the East region. The seeding implies that the team should get past the first opponent and then lose to the 3-seed in the second round, but nothing is ever completely straightforward during March Madness.

For today, I’m just going to focus on whether the Gators will make it past the first weekend of the tournament.

Mike White hasn’t lost in the first round of a postseason tournament yet, going 4-0 in the first round of the NIT and, of course, taking UF to the Elite Eight a year ago. He has a different sort of challenge in the first round this time, as he doesn’t yet know who his opponent will be. The First Four matchup of UCLA-St. Bonaventure must play out before we know for sure who he’ll get.

Should White keep his streak going, Florida will face the winner of Texas Tech and Stephen F. Austin in the second round. Either one will be on more familiar turf with these initial rounds being in Dallas.

Here are brief capsules on UF’s four possible opponents. The team efficiency and pace stats I’m using are all from Ken Pomeroy.

St. Bonaventure

Overall Rank: 69 | Offensive Efficiency: 59 | Defensive Efficiency: 94 | Pace: 109

A little over 65% of the Bonnies’ offense comes from just three players: guard Jaylen Adams, guard Matt Mobley, and 6’5″ forward Courtney Stockard. Only once this year, a road trip at Rhode Island, has St. Bonaventure lost when all three hit double figures. It’s been a battle getting all three on the court at times, though. Adams missed a bunch of games early, while Stockard left Friday’s A-10 Tournament game against Richmond with a hamstring injury and was held out of Saturday’s loss to Davidson as a precaution. His status for this week is as of yet unknown.

The team only has five players that average more than 15 minutes per game, so a lot hinges of whether Stockard can play, and, if so, how close to 100% he is. For a comparison to a UF opponent, think Arkansas but not as good on offense. The Bonnies’ pace and defensive efficiency are very similar to the Razorbacks’ figures, but their offensive efficiency lags behind.

I wouldn’t expect UF to blow the Bonnies off the court, but the Gators match up well against them. The big duel of the game would be Chris Chiozza against Adams, and UF should like that combo. Adams turns it over more than three times a game, while Chiozza gets almost two steals per game. A noticeable chunk of St. Bonaventure possessions could end because Chiozza gets the better of Adams.

UCLA

Overall Rank: 48 | Offensive Efficiency: 23 | Defensive Efficiency: 110 | Pace: 57

UCLA is an offensive-minded team that leans heavily on its star guard Aaron Holiday. He puts up 20 points per game, and Kris Wilkes is the only other Bruin that scores more than ten per contest. Holiday generally will get his regardless of whether the team as a whole plays well or not.

The Bruins have the worst defensive efficiency rating of all four potential opponents, but they have something none of the other three teams really do: size. Wilkes is a 6’8″ guard, and the third-leading scorer is the rare true center, seven-footer Thomas Welsh. Other members of the main rotation include 6’11” Gyorgi Goloman and 6’10” Alex Olesinski. With UF’s big men suffering all kinds of maladies in recent weeks, this could be a tough matchup.

Then again, UCLA has been tremendously inconsistent. They beat Kentucky in New Orleans and pushed Arizona to overtime in the Pac-12 Tournament but also got swept by a mediocre Colorado team and lost a 185-point shootout (in regulation!) to Oregon. Plus despite their size, the Bruins aren’t known for toughness. Anything from dropping the First Four game to St. Bonaventure to running UF off the floor with its fast pace is on the table.

Stephen F. Austin

Overall Rank: 111 | Offensive Efficiency: 177 | Defensive Efficiency: 67 | Pace: 48

The Lumberjacks have been something of a trendy upset pick since they began making the tournament a few years ago. They’ve cashed in on it too, winning a 5-12 upset against VCU in 2014 and bouncing West Virginia in a 3-14 upset in 2016. Those past teams ended up ranked 70th and 41st, respectively in the KenPom ratings, though. This year’s team is 111th right now.

SFA is unusual in that it likes to push the pace but is fairly inefficient on offense while doing so. They’ve actually had a fair amount of SEC experience, losing close games at Mississippi State and Missouri while edging LSU by one in Baton Rouge. They hung tough in those, but those are also the three best teams they’ve faced all year by a substantial margin.

This outfit is much more of a true 14-seed than that 2016 squad was. This one has four losses to KenPom 190th or below teams, while the ’16 team only had one of those. SFA won’t be intimidated by the bright lights of the Big Dance, but its iffy defense probably isn’t enough to overcome its inefficient offense and challenge Florida — or even get to face Florida in the first place.

Texas Tech

Overall Rank: 12 | Offensive Efficiency: 46 | Defensive Efficiency: 3 | Pace: 248

From the standpoint of the KenPom ratings, the Red Raiders are almost exactly the same as Tennessee. The Vols are 11th overall, 40th in offensive efficiency, fourth in defensive efficiency, and 271st in pace. When the Gators battled Tennessee, they fell behind early and played from behind nearly the entire way en route to a loss. If the same thing was to happen against TTU, the result would likely be the same as well. On the other side of the coin, the Red Raiders aren’t built to play from behind and would suffer if Florida hit a few shots in a row early.

UF has played a whopping 16 games against teams in the top 25 of defensive efficiency, themselves sitting in that 25 spot for now, and have come away 8-8. Texas Tech has played just six such games and is 3-3 in them, but three were against Texas and two were against Baylor. When it comes to overcoming top defenses, Florida has a lot more varied experience there.

Texas Tech has a long rotation, with nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per game compared to Florida’s six. Keenan Evans is the main event, though, as he was one of the Big 12’s best players. TTU can win when he’s slowed, but it’s much harder for it to do so. The Red Raiders went on a four-game skid late in the year after Evans sustained a toe injury. Shutting him down would go a long way to overcoming this team.

Outlook

It’s no favor to Florida to have to face a First Four opponent, as they lose a couple days of focused scouting. The good news is that UCLA and St. Bonaventure, while different personnel-wise, aren’t too far off stylistically. Either way, UF will have to contend with a team that likes to push tempo and is a better offensive team than defensive. SFA even falls into that category too, leaving the Gators and Texas Tech the odd teams out as deliberate, defensively superior teams.

I personally would worry more about UCLA most in the first round because it has so many big bodies, though even the seven-footer Welsh will step out and take three to four attempts per game from downtown despite averaging nearly 11 rebounds per game. A First Four team has made the Sweet 16 every year there’s been a First Four, and UCLA has made the Sweet 16 in each of its appearances under Steve Alford.

I think UF will be in decent enough shape to win their first game if they come out and play well. So much of all of this, after all, will come down to which Florida team, and in some specific cases, which versions of players will show up. Will Jalen Hudson be on or off? Will KeVaughn Allen be assertive or a wallflower? The defense might just be enough to carry the day either way given that both UCLA and St. Bonaventure are not good defensive outfits.

I would feel great about the Gators facing Stephen F. Austin in the second round, though I doubt they’ll see the Lumberjacks.

Texas Tech is the toughest matchup, which makes sense given that it’s the best-ranked seed in the pod. Evans is back to full strength, the deep bench gives the Red Raiders greater margin for error, and the team is elite at defense.

If you give me the score after ten minutes, I could probably give you the outcome. As for now though, I will leave it at the fact that getting past Texas Tech is a tough hill to climb to make it out of the first weekend of the tournament.