On their second three-game losing streak of the season the Florida Gators will be looking to keep that number from getting to four when they take on coach Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers. One of the most intriguing stories in college basketball this year the Auburn Tigers were a team expected to struggle after losing players to eligibility issues and instead have become a squad at one point in the mix for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Furthering the drama of the season was the loss of key forward Anfernee McLemore to a gruesome leg injury. Instead of folding over the Tigers came out the next game and controlled a very good Alabama team 90-71. Can the Gators slow the roll of one of the hottest teams in college hoops or will they bring their losing streak to four games? Let’s take a dive into the numbers and see what we can expect.
Season To Date
Never known to schedule too aggressively in the non-conference Auburn didn’t pick up too many marquee wins but had some nice victories over Middle Tennessee and Murray State away from home with their only blemish being a neutral floor defeat to Temple, a team with the proven ability to get hot and beat just about anyone. Most of their work has come in the SEC schedule where they sit at the top of standings at 12-3, two games ahead of Tennessee who trails in second. All together, Auburn is currently 12th in the AP Poll, 8th in KenPom, and 7th in RPI making this a really good chance for the Gators to pick up a high quality win.
Bruce Pearl’s teams have always played fast and loose with the green light to shoot and a creative offense that generates good looks early in the possession. This was on display last season, if you recall, when the Gators won an absolute barnburner against the Tigers 114-95. You don’t see those kinds of scores in college basketball very often. Currently 10th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and a team with scoring prowess battle tested against the SEC’s best stoppers the Tigers have proven themselves to be effective scoring in transition, inside, and from behind the arc. They especially love that transition part. Playing the game at the 21st fastest tempo in college hoops (and 2nd amongst major conference teams) they are looking to get up the floor as quickly as possible looking for any available layup or trailing jump shot. If nothing is there and they have to run offense they are still looking to play fast with an NBA style offense of quick hitters unlike the normal college offense that is slower with multiple reads. Part of the reason they can play fast with simple, effective plays is because they have four starters who can really score and balance out the floor and offensive load. Bryce Brown (16.4 PPG), Mustapha Heron (16.1 PPG), Jared Harper (13.8 PPG), and Desean Murray (10.7) are four skilled pieces that can initiate offense from multiple positions of the floor so the Gators will have to match up quickly on defense in transition or the Tigers will run a quick play for any of these players to get open for a jumper. We know Mike White likes to have his players switch often and guard different players and it’s a good thing they are comfortable in doing that because Auburn’s speed down the floor makes it so that their opposition often needs to quickly match up with players that aren’t necessarily their primary check. Transition defense is all about communicating so that everyone gets covered and this could be a challenge for the Gators whose ability to talk on defense hasn’t always been excellent.
Whether trailing in transition or spotting up during half-court set plays Auburn is looking for find shooters more than they are looking to get to the rim. If you thought Florida didn’t get many points at the rim, you’ll have to take a glance at Auburn. Though Florida only gets 45.5% of their points from 2-point range and is in the basement of the NCAA in that category at 291st, Auburn is even lower getting 42.1% of their points from two for 339th in the country. Florida needs to be aware of that and might have to sacrifice some help side defense at times in order to stick with shooters. If there is a way you want Auburn to beat you it’s at the rim, not from behind the arc. Shooting a high volume of threes at a 37.7% clip (59th in the country) you want to take aware as many of those shots as possible and force them to beat you inside. Down to only 8 scholarship players with the injury to Anfernee McLemore there are 7 good shooters (everyone other than forward Horace Spencer) so there isn’t really anyone the Gators can leave open in an attempt to lock down someone else. They’ll have to play smart, play fast, and communicate to slow down what is one of the best offenses in the country.
Speed, speed, and more speed. Usually if you’re talking about speed in basketball you’re talking about offense but in Auburn’s case they use that fleet-footedness on defense to be quick to spots and “heat up” (force players to make quicker decisions) ball handlers. Playing Auburn becomes very uncomfortable when you’ve got the ball and it has forced teams to throw up a lot of quick, impatient, and bad shots that not only often miss but allow Auburn to get a rebound, get running, and generally play at the pace they want to dictate. Florida will need to be patient on offense (something that hasn’t been a problem the last few weeks as the offense has really slowed down) and be strong with the ball so they aren’t forced into bad turnovers or quick shots due to Auburn’s speed. Another way Auburn uses speed to defensively is by playing a full court press, a tactic gaining a resurgence in major conference basketball. The press could be concerning for the Gators as even though Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen shouldn’t have too much trouble breaking it playing against a press can use up a lot of your energy and the Gators might not have as much trust in Michael Okauru and Deaundrae Ballard off the bench to handle ball pressure as they do in their starting backcourt.
One area Auburn is lacking in is team size. Auburn doesn’t have any hulking pieces in the frontcourt and is listed as he 301st tallest team in college basketball, and that’s counting one of their taller players in Anfernee McLemore who won’t be playing. McLemore, though only 6’7”, was an incredible rim protector swatting away 2.7 shots per game and those rejections will be sorely missed. We know the Gators have struggled when it comes to driving and have struggled even more when it comes to finishing inside but against this Auburn team they should have a far better chance then normal to get easy baskets at the rim. Rebounding is another area Auburn’s lack of size hurts them and the Gators should be able to really compete, and hopefully win, in this area. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Auburn’s lack of length makes them struggle to contest shooters at times. Florida has been in a serious shooting drought their last 10 games shooting well below 30% from three and this game could be an opportunity for them to splash some shots from deep and get some positive momentum.
Keys to the Game
Florida has to find a way to deal with Auburn’s defensive speed and pressure. When you’re in an offensive slump like the Gators are the last thing you want is to play a team like Auburn that presses you full court at times and in the half court will constantly get up in your chest. How they deal with this pressure, whether its with high ball screens or dribble handoffs to get the ball handler some breathing room, will be interesting to see and could be the difference in the game. The Gators also have to try and defend one of the great bucket-getting teams in college basketball which is no small task. Florida has been physically outmuscled in so many games this year that playing a fellow small team might be a welcomed sight but Auburn drilling three after three won’t be. This will be a tough game for the Gators but also a fantastic opportunity for a quality win.
Are you expecting the Gators to get back on track or get ran out of the gym? Let me know here in the comment section or post on the Gator Country forums.