When the Gators took the floor against Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in historic Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, everything was going right. The ball was popping side to side and when the ball was in the hands of playmakers like Tre Mann or Tyree Appleby they were collapsing the defense and generating open shots. Scottie Lewis and Anthony Duruji were easily the best athletes on the floor and they were playing like it, getting all types of deflections and sending the Gators the other way for fast break opportunities.
Possibly the biggest indication of Florida’s success was center Colin Castleton’s 23 points on ridiculously efficient 11-13 shooting from the floor. What makes that number special is that, with all due respect to Castleton, it wasn’t him simply dominating a matchup (though he did do that on a couple of occasions), it was him benefitting from his teammates breaking down a defense to the point of Castleton being open and uncontested around the rim.
Everything was looking great for Florida, but to put everything in context…this was Vanderbilt after all. One of the youngest teams in the country that returns only a few pieces from a team that won three SEC games a year ago, a drastic improvement from the year prior when they won a grand total of zero.
However, the Gators played the team in front of them and played about as good as they could have hoped. While Vanderbilt may not have been a true test to see where the team is really at, on Saturday the Gators will have a real opportunity to gauge just that.
The LSU Tigers have looked stellar through the first month of the season, holding a 6-1 record. They opened up their season against Texas A&M and throttled them 77-54, demonstrating their overwhelming size and strength that they’ve used to roll through the early part of the season.
Their sole loss, however, did come against the best team they’ve played so far this season in a talented Saint Louis team that’s likely to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Florida will be LSU’s biggest test so far, and they’ll also be looking to establish their spot on the college basketball landscape.
So far LSU is doing exactly what Will Wade’s Tigers have done for the last couple of seasons–score the basketball, and give up a good amount of points on their own end.
The Tigers are currently 5th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and 106th in defensive efficiency. They ended last season 4th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 176th in defensive efficiency, so this run-and-gun style isn’t all that unfamiliar for them.
What is interesting, however, is that their offense looks a lot different this year. Over the last two seasons the reason the Tigers have been so good offensively has been their ability to get in the paint and get shots near the rim over, and over, and over again. Rolling out some of the longest and most athletic teams in the SEC they’d have constant action for cutters barrelling towards the rim and if they were ever stopped they’d dump it in to dynamic frontcourt players who could dunk with authority. Interestingly enough, despite LSU’s tremendous success offensively over the last two seasons they were actually near the bottom of the high major ranks in terms of three-pointers attempted and in the 200’s nationally in terms of three-point field goal percentage. In a modern basketball world where so much is made about getting and making open threes, the Tigers just kept pounding the ball inside for high percentage twos, and they did it successfully.
That might have been the case in the last two seasons but so far in 2020-21, they’re letting it fly from deep.
Currently 68th in the country in three-point attempts and 71st in percentage, the three-point shot went from being their secondary or tertiary option to being the focal point of their offense. Their three-point attack is led by familiar face Javonte Smart, a junior who has played plenty of battles against the Gators, hitting a blistering 47% of his threes. The ever-important stretch big man position is filled by Darius Days, a Gainesville native who is hitting 40% of his threes while also using his 6’7”, 245 pound frame to bruise up opposing frontcourts.
Florida’s defensive strategy entering the game will have to be drastically different than in the past two seasons against LSU and taking away three-point opportunities will need to be a focus. If there was one thing that did go wrong in what was otherwise a fantastic performance against Vanderbilt it’s that they gave up way too many open threes, a product of some sloppy pick and roll defense. Florida lacked communication at times which led to far too much off the ball help sinking into the paint and Vanderbilt was able to take advantage by finding open shooters.
LSU has better pick and roll threats than Vanderbilt and also has more deadly shooters, so if Florida plays the same pick and roll defense they could be in trouble.
A threat as both a pick and roll creator and as an off-ball shooter is guard Cameron Thomas, who could very well be the best freshman in the country you haven’t heard about.
Thomas hasn’t gotten the attention of the more high-profile recruits at traditional blue blood programs but he’s been as good, or even better as most of them. Through seven games he’s averaging 24 points, 2 assists, and 3 rebounds while hitting 37% of his threes on over 8 attempts per game. He’s been as good of an offensive player as there has been in the country this year and he established that once again in LSU’s most recent game against Texas A&M where he put up 32 points at ease, getting any shot he wanted and hitting most of them.
Stopping Thomas is going to be at the center of Florida’s scouting report. He’s got great size for a guard at 6’4” and 210 pounds, so the natural defender for him could be Scottie Lewis who often takes the opposing team’s best perimeter threat. For Lewis, the key will be not overplaying and gambling. Lewis has the tools to be a great defender, but often gets caught trying to do too much and get steals instead of simply keeping his feet in front of his check. In a big time matchup against Thomas he may feel like he needs to be overly aggressive but he doesn’t, he just needs to play responsibly.
What could make guarding Thomas even more difficult is the fact that LSU plays so much in transition. Transition gives them the opportunity to get easy buckets, but even when they don’t get a layup on the initial break it creates advantages. When they push it up the floor teams will often get cross matched in tough matchups and when that happens the Tigers can go one on one and finish. If the Gators choose to press they are also going to find themselves in tough matchup situations at times, and how they’re able to defend out of those matchups will tell the story of the game.
Defensively, LSU leaves a lot to be desired and they have given up a lot of points to some mediocre offensive teams. Right now the Gators have to be feeling pretty good against their offense and it’s easy to see them being able to put up some points against the Tigers.
Despite having some explosive athletes, those same players aren’t particularly quick moving laterally and it has created perimeter defense problems for the Tigers. They’ll give up drives, and that’s something the Gators have thrived on so far this season. Tre Mann has been a tough cover for a lot of really good defenses and he should have every opportunity to get in the paint and make plays. Tyree Appleby will be quicker than anyone LSU has to guard him, and it could be a big opportunity for him to provide an offensive spark off the bench.
Defensive troubles have led LSU to go to a funky zone to try and confuse opponents, and it’s a bit of a knuckleball that can go one of two ways. On some occasions it has really surprised and confused teams due to its bizarre alignment, but it can also hemorrhage open shots due to its seemingly random nature that can lose players off the ball.
It starts in a 1-3-1 look, but as the ball moves towards the free throw line the Tigers start to fall back into a bit of 2-3 look, but they’re looking to match up out of it versus staying in the zone look that stacks the strong side of the ball. They’ll switch a lot of off ball screens which can make it tough for teams to run their regular offense and the Gators will have that issue to deal with.
Preparing for it will be difficult and when it comes to Saturday a lot of Florida’s offense will come down to individual players being able to make plays when they present themselves against the “junk” defense they’ll see from LSU.
Overall, the key for Florida has to be playing solid defense. The Gators have been putting up points on the Tigers for a couple of years straight now and it’s trending towards that being the case again on Saturday. However, the Gators haven’t always been able to guard the Tigers and when they haven’t been up for the challenge, they’ve lost.
Shoring up their pick and roll defense that struggled against Vanderbilt has to be the number one priority as if they can do that then LSU will be limited in both driving attempts and catch and shoot three attempts.
Another more intangible element to the game will be toughness. LSU is a physical team that likes to try to bully opponents on the glass and in one on one matchups. When they have played teams that lack the same element of toughness, they’ve won. However, when they played a Saint Louis team that’s not as talented as LSU but is equally if not more tough, the Tigers lost. If the Gators can match the level of toughness from LSU their skill level may shine through, and that could be the difference in this game.