The dust has finally settled from Saturday’s spectacular victory over Missouri, and the Gators now set their sights towards the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Picked in the preseason poll to finish near the bottom of the SEC, the Bulldogs quietly went 12-1 in their (albeit easy) non-conference schedule, and came up with a nice win over Arkansas to start their SEC season before falling to the Ole Miss Rebels in a close one. The Gators will be looking to get a victory to keep them on top of the SEC standings with Auburn, a team on a 12-game winning streak and in the Top 25 for the first time since 2003, breathing down their neck. With a chance to stay ahead in the SEC standings on the line, here is what you can expect when the Gators take on the Bulldogs.
Under the Weather
You wouldn’t have known it from watching his performance on Saturday, but Chris Chiozza has strep throat and it has gotten worse the last couple of days. He is going to be held out of practice on both Monday and Tuesday in hopes that he’ll be ready for Wednesday’s game. Should he not be able to go I expect Michael Okauru to get a bigger role, much to the delight of many Gator Country posters who are big fans of the freshman. The KeVaughn Allen point guard experiment hasn’t gone swimmingly when he’s been tried out there at the “one”, but he’ll have to be the primary ball handler in stretches if Chiozza can’t play.
Mississippi State is lead by two brothers, Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon. Quinndary, a junior and the elder of the two, was a 4-star recruit who has been a primary feature on the roster the last several years and was instrumental in bringing his brother Nick (also a 4-star recruit) to Starkville. They average a combined 25.6 points per game so be ready to hear the name Weatherspoon a lot on Wednesday.
A team more predicated on defense, Mississippi State has struggled at times this season to put the ball in the hoop. Currently 149th in the nation in offensive efficiency, their skill on that end of the floor is nothing to write home about. Without a doubt, their biggest struggle comes when it’s time to shoot the ball. Prepare yourselves, folks, this stat is about to be ugly. Currently shooting 28.9% from the 3-point line, the Bulldogs are 341st in the country from long range. Though that number is decidedly off-putting, it doesn’t stop them for hoisting up the long ball as 38.4% of their field goal attempts are from three, and they have 6 players averaging over 2.5 3-point attempts per game. The fact they continue to put up large amounts of 3-point shots despite vying for the title of worst shooting team in the country either shows a boatload of misplaced confidence or a team that has just been unlucky and is due for a breakout performance, so we’ll see if shots start falling for them in Gainesville. Though you might be able to sag off of a lot of these Bulldogs shooters, the one you have to keep an eye on is big man Aric Holman who is shooting the three at a remarkable 52.6%. At 6’10” and 225 and a good finisher inside you might actually be happy he’s venturing outside of the paint to look for jump shots, but Florida’s frontcourt will have to make sure to tag him on the perimeter to not allow anything wide open. Mississippi State’s shooting woes have lead to them facing a good dose of zone defense (28.2% of the time) and that strategy could definitely be in the cards for the Gators who could use the 1-3-1, 2-3, or 3-2 zones in their repertoire to wall up the inside, knowing they shouldn’t be punished from behind the arc if the ball gets kicked out. A zone would also help guard against Mississippi States number one focus on offense which is to get into the paint and try to finish at the rim. The Bulldogs are chalk full of elite athletes capable of finishing at the hoop and it has made Mississippi State the 9th best team in the country in 2-point percentage.
So, to recap, Mississippi State is 10th worst in the country from 3, and 9th best in the country from 2.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that Florida will be focused on putting multiple defenders in the paint in an attempt to stop dribble penetration, Mississippi State’s bread and butter. If the Bulldogs do get into the paint, Florida shouldn’t be afraid to use fouls as Mississippi State’s shooting woes extend to the free throw line where they are 64.5% as a team, ranking 325th in the country. Most curiously struggling is point guard Lamar Peters who has put up a blubbering 57.1% from the line, so if the Gators get into a late game fouling situation he has to be their guy.
Knowing how badly they shoot the basketball, the Bulldogs have made offensive rebounding a priority and they do that extremely well. Rebounding nearly 35% of their missed shots, the Gators will need to work extremely hard to box out and do a good job recognizing offensive rebounders and finding them with a body. If Florida can limit the Bulldog’s second chance opportunities then Mississippi State should really struggle to score and the Gators could make the game a lot easier for themselves.
Though Mississippi State sees a lot of shots spilling out on offense, they make up for it by causing a lot of misses on their own end of the floor. Currently 25th in the country in defensive efficiency, this is a team that plays connected and can really put the clamps on for 40 minutes. Mississippi State’s non-conference schedule was incredibly soft (they are 322nd in strength of schedule) which has helped inflate their defensive stats, but the metrics show that this is a truly great defensive team. Bothered by elite athletes like the Weatherspoon brothers and the size of frontcourt giants Aric Holman and Abdul Ado, teams have only shot an effective field goal percentage of 45.5% and a mere 44.1% from 2-point range. The Bulldogs can also really deter threes with their length, and their 31.7% allowed from beyond the arc means that there could be a whole lot threes missed on both sides of the court on Wednesday.
Anchored inside by the previously mentioned giants Holman and Ado, the paint is a tough place to be if you want to score on the Bulldogs. One of the best rim protecting teams in the country, Mississippi State gets their hands on 16.6% of their opponents shots, making them the 9th best shot blocking team in the country. The 6’11”, 250 pound freshman Ado is particularly skilled in the art of swat, averaging 2.4 blocks per game and deterring many more from falling. Another area these big men make their impact felt is in screen and roll defense where the Bulldogs are in the 98th percentile of defending the ball handler. They like to hedge out and trap the ball handler, and when you get players like 6’11” Ado or 6’10” Holman going to trap a ball handler already being defended by an athletic 6’4” Quinndary Weatherspoon, that ball handler is going to struggle to pass out. That has lead teams to turn the ball over more then a quarter of the time when the ball handler tries to get free from a pick and roll, and this could be really concerning for the Gators. Chris Chiozza does a great job at taking care of the ball (the Gators are currently 2nd in the nation in ball security. 2nd!) but his 6’0” stature will make passing out of these traps difficult, and we still don’t even know if Chiozza will be able to play due to his sickness (he claims in an interview with Andy Katz that he should be good to go). This would be a difficult defense to throw Michael Okauru against as a young player, but it could also be fantastic experience for him to face these elite defenders and see what he can do against their length and anticipation.
Players to Watch
Mississippi State doesn’t have a clear star, though Quinndary Weatherspoon is probably their most important player filling up the stat sheet with 14.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.5 rebounds per game while also providing really solid defense. I also really enjoy watching Aric Holman as a player who can really play inside out, and his 12.2 points and 7 rebounds per game shows his importance to the Bulldogs. For the Gators, I think you need to keep an eye on KeVaughn Allen to see what he can accomplish against the long defenders of Mississippi State. Allen has really struggled to get any consistency on offense this season and there isn’t any holes in the Bulldog’s defense I’m expecting him to exploit, I’m just hoping the competition level brings out something in him we haven’t seen for a while.
Free Throw Defense
In one of the stranger stats in college basketball, Florida gives up the third highest free throw percentage in the country at 77.8%. I’ve been watching this number climb for weeks now, and they might finally get a break with Mississippi State’s poor shooting from the charity stripe. However, if the Bulldogs are able to shoot free throws well on Wednesday then it could confirm that the Gators are cursed when it comes to “defending” free throws.
How do you think Wednesday’s game against the Bulldogs will go? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.