Florida Looks To Open SEC Season With Win Over Alabama

With a rocky non-conference schedule behind them the Gators will be back at the O’Dome on Saturday ready to take on Alabama in the opening game of league play in front of what’s sure to be a raucous home crowd. Considering the SEC is down from what it is in most years in addition to the schedule breaking favorably for the Gators with multiple stretches of games against teams projected to miss the NCAA Tournament their season is going to be all about avoiding bad losses and taking care of the games they should be favored in. This is going to be one of those games, a contest on their home floor against a 7-5 Alabama team in their first year under new coach Nate Oats. Starting off the season with a win would be huge for a Gators team whose confidence has been up and down and I’m sure they’ll be amped up to compete in front of their home crowd. Here are some storylines entering Saturday’s game.

Season To Date

As mentioned earlier, Alabama is 7-5 on the season and they’ve lost to most of the best teams they’ve faced, falling to North Carolina, Iowa State, Penn State, Rhode Island, and Penn. Their best wins are over Furman, Richmond, and Belmont. None of their losses have been devastating but they have all been fairly convincing wins for the other side so they haven’t yet shown the ability to beat a good team. Florida will be the second-highest NET team that Alabama has played (Penn State is somehow 16th currently) so they’ll be one of the biggest tests for the Crimson Tide thus far.

Playing With Pace

When Alabama hired Nate Oats they knew exactly what they were getting and that’s a coach that was going to push the pace at all costs. Oats previously served at Buffalo where his last two teams ranked 4th and 5th in the country in average possession length.

Alabama is currently 9th.

So, as you can see, playing fast is a way of life for Oats and his teams and that means you know they are going to look to run against the Gators. Over 21% of their shots come in transition and they are a more efficient team on the break (46.7% FG, 0.944 PPP) than they are in the half court (43.3%, 0.895 PPP). Everything points to them trying to make this game a sprint and the Gators are going to match it by trying to make the game a marathon. Florida is currently 311th in possession length against, meaning they have really slowed down their opposition. In the battle of 311th defensive possession length against 9th offensive possession length we can’t be certain who will win, but usually it’s easier for a team to slow down a team that wants to play fast than it is for a team to speed up a team that wants to play slow.

Whoever dictates the tempo of this game is going to have a huge advantage. Alabama isn’t comfortable playing slow and for that reason they have played with pace at all costs, one of those costs being turnovers. Currently 271st in turnover percentage they are coughing up the ball on 21.2% of their possessions, an area the Gators could exploit considering they have been pretty good at forcing turnovers this year.

When Alabama does get out and run a player to watch out for is freshman guard Jaden Shackelford, a key member of the recruiting class that’s going to help set the foundation for the Nate Oats era in Tuscaloosa. Shackelford is extremely comfortable dribbling the ball at full sprint which allows him to get easy points at the rim and he’s just as good running without the ball where he times his cuts perfectly to get a pass and finish.

Keeping the Crimson Tide out of transition with be priority number one for the Gators and if they’re successful it would go a long way in helping them win the game.

3-Point Attack

Along with playing as fast as possible Alabama is focused on taking as many threes as they possibly can. Currently 17th in the country in 3-point attempt rate they are second to only Syracuse among power conference teams and you know when they come into Gainesville they’ll be looking to fly.

They aren’t just looking to take good threes, they’re looking to take any threes.

68.3% of their catch and shoot attempts are closely guarded with 31.7% of them being open.

That is almost exactly the inverse of Florida’s numbers with 31.9% of their catch and shoot jumpers closely guarded and 68.1% open.

Taking so many contested jumpers shows that they aren’t that concerned with getting open shots, they’re just concerned with getting as many threes up as possible. This is a strategy based on the simple math that the expected shot value of a contested three is still higher than a lot of decent two-point looks, so they might as well get up a contested three. For these numbers to really bare out they need a big sample size of shots, and that’s why they play really fast to make as many possessions in the game as possible.

This isn’t a strategy that has even worked at the high major level over long stretches but it’s definitely one that could win games when the Tide are shooting well and so far they’ve had a lot of those games. Surprisingly, even though they take so many difficult shots they have a tremendous 36.7% mark from three, a number good for 41st nationally. As much as their crazy barrage of threes from anywhere on the floor can look silly at times their percentages are fantastic and they are surprisingly consistent for a team playing a style that usually goes through hot spells and droughts.

This is the point in the article where John Petty needs to be shouted out. A junior, he’s not new to the SEC and most of you will remember him from Florida’s battles with Alabama the last few years but right now he is doing something that deserves major attention.

Petty is having one of the best shooting starts to a season in college basketball history.

For starters, he’s shooting a blistering 51.2% from three. What makes it that much more impressive is that he has taken a ton of them, 82 to be exact. For a reference point, Noah Locke has only taken 73 threes. Petty’s 51.2% from the land beyond is good for 16th nationally but he has taken double or even triple the amount of threes of people ahead of him on the list. For him to be taking such a heavy volume of threes and to be hitting them at such a high percent is nothing short of magnificent and the Gators will have to be aware of him at all times when he’s on the floor.

James “Beetle” Bolden, a West Virginia grad transfer who the Gators saw in non-conference play a year ago is also a shooter to watch whose 40.5% from deep would be impressive on most teams but gets pushed to the backburner next to Petty’s miraculous number.

Offensive Leader

At the end of plays you’ve got to be concerned with Petty’s shooting but at the start of Alabama’s offense it’s all about sophomore point guard Kira Lewis, one of the most talented point guards in the country who can be impossible to guard off the dribble when he’s on his game. Alabama’s leading scorer and assist man at 16.6 points and 4.8 dimes he’s the initiator for anything they do in the half court and he’s also a primary ball handler in transition. When they’re on the run he’s always a threat to get right to the rim with a slippery game off the bounce and when teams collapse to him he’s capable of finding a cutter or shooter.

In last season’s matchup he put up 14 points and 2 assists despite his team getting blown out 71-53 by the Gators and even though he was the focus of Florida’s defense he was still able to get loose for some easy buckets.

When Florida is able to take Alabama out transition and into the half court game they’ll have to be most concerned with Lewis. He’s just as good playing within a structured offense as he is improvising and finding weak points in the defense and if the Gators have lapses than Lewis is going to find a way into the paint and when that happens it could be a layup or a kick-out for a Petty or Bolden three.

Speedier guards like Lewis gave Andrew Nembhard some problems on defense last year, so it will be interesting to see what the Gators do matchup-wise this time around. Nembhard is a noticeably better defender this year than last year but he hasn’t had a matchup like Lewis so far this year so we can’t be entirely sure how the true point guard battle would go. An option for the Gators would be to go Lewis on Lewis, matching up Scottie Lewis with Kira Lewis. That would put Florida’s most athletic perimeter defender on Kira Lewis and allow Nembhard to play away from the ball where he has also shown great strides as a help defender.

Florida might need a few looks against Lewis to slow him down for 40 minutes and how they choose to defend him will be something to watch out for on Saturday.

Matchup Outlook

This is an important game for the Gators as Alabama is a team that’s out of the NCAA Tournament picture this year and considering it’s in Gainesville it would be a tough loss to take. They don’t want to be chasing the SEC season and starting with a commanding win would be huge for their confidence.

Going back to last season the Gators have had great success against teams that want to play really fast. Whenever a team has tried to dictate a quicker tempo the Gators have put an end to it with their defense and this could definitely be a game just like that. If it’s a slower, grinding game it would definitely benefit the Gators and if they allow it to get faster with teams trading ends the Crimson Tide are going to have an advantage.

Alabama’s defense hasn’t been great this year and their wings have been exploited defensively. They lack high-IQ defensive players and they can often get scrambled and out of sorts playing within their man defense. Multiple poor defensive efforts this year suggest it’s going to be possible for Florida to put up some points in this one so it will be all about whether or not the Gators can lock down Alabama. The Crimson Tide are incredibly reliant on fast break points and the Gators should be able to take a lot of those away, whether it’s by their defense or it’s by hammering the offensive glass and not allowing Alabama players to leak out. Alabama hasn’t been very good on the defensive glass and if the Gators want to play big they should be able to get second chances on the offensive boards. If they keep pounding the glass Alabama will have to send their guards back to help rebound and if they do that their transition offense will be slowed.

This is a matchup the Gators should be favored in, but any league game is going to be a battle. If the Gators continue their upward trajectory offensively and find a way to slow down Alabama in transition they should be in good shape.

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.