Answer To Problems Against Mississippi State Might Have Been Right There In Front Of Them

Florida’s loss to Mississippi State was a heartbreaker and while they played 20 minutes of strong basketball in the first half that saw them grow a lead as large as 16 points it was a self destruction in the second that ultimately saw their demise and arguably the most frustrating loss in recent memory.

After winning by 10 at the half the Gators were thoroughly dominated in the second, losing that half by a score of 43-26. Defensively they allowed 70% shooting from the Bulldogs and offensively they had devastating droughts when they were able to get a stop or two and when you don’t play particularly well on either side of the floor, you lose.

The most devastating of offensive droughts came near the midpoint of the second half. Ques Glover had just took it into the teeth of the Mississippi State defense for a layup that made it 52-43 for the Gators and Ben Howland called a timeout for the Bulldogs with 15:57 on the clock. That timely move from the coach completely changed the momentum of the game and the Gators went ice cold, not putting another point on the board until the 11:10 mark. That was enough for Mississippi State to bring it back to a tie game and with their scoring run all the momentum was it their favor.

It wasn’t the only scoring drought that sunk the Gators as they also went from the 9:21 mark until 6:06 without a point, another skid that ruined their chances at victory.

Both offense and defense failed the Gators in this basketball game, it’s no question. As mentioned earlier the Bulldogs shot 70% in the second half which brought their field goal percentage to 53.8% on the game and when the Gators give that up they’re going to be in tough to win. To give up that percentage defensively and win Florida would have had to be outstanding offensively but even when they strung together some stops in the second they had the scoring droughts.

Florida had a bit of a turnaround at the start of conference play when they started to feature a bigger lineup with both Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Omar Payne on the floor at the same time. It allowed their offense to blossom as they overpowered most team’s frontcourts and playing Payne next to Blackshear gave some defensive insolation due to Payne’s shot blocking prowess. Next to Omar Payne and Kerry Blackshear Jr. were the familiar faces Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, and Keyontae Johnson.

This group of five players was putting up simply ridiculous numbers in the SEC season (plus the Baylor game).

Offensively they’re at 1.54 points per possession making them one of the most potent lineups in college basketball.

Defensively they’re at 0.63 points per possession allowed, a spectacular number both on it’s own right and even more so when you factor in how the Gators have struggled to defend with Blackshear on the floor in most lineups.

Not only has this lineup put up incredibly impressive numbers but they’ve done it largely against the best opponents on Florida’s schedule, these aren’t numbers inflated by games against low majors. Plus, it’s been the starting unit so they’ve been putting these numbers up against the opposition’s best players. So, it’s looking like this lineup is legit and there is a reason they have started 6 of Florida’s last 8 games.

Let’s get back to the Mississippi State loss. Things were falling apart in the second half and the Gators didn’t have anything going for them defensively or offensively. Florida was searching for answers but couldn’t find them and ultimately they suffered a crushing loss.

Knowing the lineup data, it’s very clear who Florida’s best five have been.

Andrew Nembhard
Noah Locke
Keyontae Johnson
Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Omar Payne

They’ve been the best five offensively and they’ve been the best five defensively. Against Mississippi State the Gators were struggling on both sides of the floor, so it would make sense to get their best lineup out there to change up the momentum of the game.

How many possessions did this lineup play against Mississippi State?

0.

The starting lineup for 6 of the last 8 games including the blowout win over #4 Auburn, the group of five players that have shown to be the best combination by the numbers….played 0 possessions against Mississippi State.

Scottie Lewis had a great start to the game scoring 13 points in the first half while shooting the ball efficiently. This earned him so more run in the eyes of the coaches and he ended up playing 33 minutes, making it difficult to get Florida’s best five out there.

This is a perfect example of where in-game coaching and sensitivity to the game need to combine with numbers and analytical thought. Lewis had a great first half offensively and in the eyes of the coaching staff that earns him more minutes and he was out there for most of the second.

It makes sense to start him out there in the second and give him some more run, but when things started to go south for the Gators you need to have some analytical thought enter the equation. Florida has a large sample size of what their best lineups are both offensively and defensively, and it’s extremely clear who their best five are. When the Gators started to skid out and they weren’t playing well on either side of the floor it would have been wise to know their best five players and get them out there. That didn’t happen and the Gators backslid to a painful loss.

Would it have been different if they put their best lineup out there? It’s entirely likely. Despite Florida playing some of their worst basketball of the season during the second half it was a 2-possession game with a minute remaining so it was still close.

The lineup that played the most minutes was Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, and Kerry Blackshear. This lineup has been good this year, but their numbers aren’t anything close to their best five. Offensively they are at 1.1 points per possession offensively and 0.94 points per possession defensively, and this was the lineup the Gators rolled with a lot early so they had the opportunity to play against some lesser opponents.

When you look at the difference in productivity between Florida’s best five and the group they played for most of the second against Mississippi State it’s quite a wide gap, so playing the lineup that has been most effective for the Gators this year could have significantly changed the game.

In a lot of ways basketball is about winning on the margins and getting incremental edges in multiple areas that all add up to winning basketball. Making sure your best lineups are out when you need them is a great use of stats and analytics and it’s something that could have really helped the Gators in this game. It’s particularly curious considering this isn’t some odd combination of bench players and starters that have somehow found a way to excel in a small sample size of possessions, it’s been Florida’s starting lineup that has been torching teams that couldn’t get a look against Mississippi State.

Considering the way the season has gone the Gators need to employ any strategies possible that get them an edge and utilizing the best lineups would be a great place to start.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.