Florida Opening Up SEC Play Against Alabama

After a lengthy holiday break made longer by the cancellation of December 29th’s game against Ole Miss the 9-3 Gators are ready to get back to the court against the 10-3 Alabama Crimson Tide.


With a number of players in health and safety protocols the Gators were unable to take part in a game against Ole Miss on December 29th causing it’s postponement (the new date is yet to be established). Shortly after the Gators announced that they wouldn’t be able to play against the Rebels due to health and safety protocols Ole Miss announced they too had a number of players unfit to play, so there was really no way that game was ever going to make it.


It’s unknown if Florida will have it’s whole roster available for this game against Alabama on January 5th, but nearly the whole roster was seen practicing five days earlier on pictures shared on the Gators’ social media pages, perhaps suggesting that at least most of their players will be available.


That would be optimal for the Gators as they’ll need all hands on deck to take on Alabama, a team many have picked to finish at or near the top of the SEC. Head coach Nate Oats has things humming in Tuscaloosa in only his third year as the Tide have been productive on the court and landing high level recruits off of it. Their start to the season has been one of the most unique in the country as they have some of the best resume wins of any team, but also a few tough losses.


First, Alabama took down National Title favorite Gonzaga and they did it in style winning 91-82. In their next game they knocked off Houston, a team that many metrics have as the third best team in the country (though devastating injuries to two of their best players in the last week means that win won’t age as well as it deserves to). In addition to those marquee wins, the Tide have impressive wins over Louisiana Tech (93-64), Oakland (86-59) and Drake (80-71) who are all considered better than a number of high-major teams in terms of the metrics and NET rankings, and they also bullied Miami 96-64 to show what they can do to decent high-major competition.


However, some of their losses have been curious. They lost 72-68 against Iona who is well coached by Rick Pitino but has far from SEC level athletes. They also had a baffling 92-78 loss to Memphis who is currently on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament picture with losses to Tulane and Murray State. To round things out, they fell 79-78 to a talented Davidson team, though it’s worth noting that the game was scheduled last minute and Alabama did what many other elite teams were willing to do–play an underrated Davidson team with little preparation.


We know Alabama can beat just about anyone in the country but they also have shown they can take some puzzling losses, so the Gators will hope to find a bit of the secret recipe that Memphis, Iona, and Davidson found to beat them.


Alabama currently sits at 21st in the NET rankings, meaning this will be a quadrant one game for Florida.


When it comes to Nate Oats basketball, it’s all about playing fast and trying to get as many threes and layups as possible and it’s made possible by one of the most talented guard groups in the country with Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, Keon Ellis, and stud freshman JD Davison. These four players rotate around the 1, 2, and 3 positions and make up nearly every minute played at each of them, meaning they constantly have three elite scoring options at the perimeter. 


If you remember back to last year, Alabama’s perimeter talent will haunt you. The Tide beat the Gators 86-71 and they were able to put up so many points by going at the Gators one on one on the perimeter over, and over, and over again, and Florida simply didn’t have enough quality point of attack defenders to stop it. Fast forward to this season and the Gators have a couple more decent perimeter defenders, but whether they have enough will be tested in Wednesday’s game. Alabama’s offense is all about getting guards going downhill towards the rim to break down defenses and find shooters and if Florida can’t play good enough one on one defense they could struggle mightily with slowing down the Tide. 


To get players going downhill Alabama uses a lot of modernized dribble drive actions that move around offensive players that are close to the ball which generates “gaps,” angles for ball handlers to drive downhill. Oftentimes on ball defenders will think that they will have help from teammates on straight line drives but because of Alabama’s way of manipulating the help side those defenders aren’t there and the defense can get scrambled and give up layups or wide open threes. 


Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shakelford, and JD Davison are all very talented straight line drivers and it’s likely that Alabama will decide which matchup on the perimeter they like against one of Florida’s defenders and go at them repeatedly as we have seen in the past with Nate Oats basketball. The reason that Alabama was able to beat Gonzaga with relative ease was this style of basketball–finding a matchup on the perimeter they liked, and then setting up the offense to attack that defender going downhill.


When it’s not gap creation sets Alabama also loves to use ball screens as another way of picking particular matchups and going at them relentlessly. If there is a pick and roll matchup they like they will run the action over and over again until the defense finally relents, and it has made them one of the most pick and roll reliant teams in the country. Over 40% of their total shots come out of the pick and roll, one of the highest numbers in the country. Florida’s pick and roll defense has been shaky at times this year and they will face their most difficult challenge on Wednesday, so certainly this will be a focus in the practices leading up to this game. 


The two shooters to be aware of for Alabama are Jaden Shackelford (39%) and Keon Ellis (36%), particularly Shackelford who has been one of the best shooters in the NCAA this year. His percentage of 39% is fantastic but certainly not the best in the country, though it’s the high percentage and sheer volume which makes him as good as anyone in the country. He’s averaging 8.4 three-point attempts per game. So at 39% he’s averaging over three makes per game, so that’s highly efficient production for the Crimson Tide. Part of the reason he’s able to shoot so many threes and at such a high percentage are because the shots he’s taking are so wide open after his teammates break down the defense so if the Gators are able to slow down dribble penetration they will also limit Shackelford’s attempts and hopefully his percentages.


If there is one area Alabama is vulnerable it’s their size. They do start a very talented 7-foot freshman in Charles Bediako but he doesn’t fit the pace Alabama wants to play and he has struggled at times defensively so he doesn’t play a ton of minutes. Instead the Tide will play Furman transfer Noah Gurley (a player the Gators had interest in) for heavy minutes at center and at only 6’8” and 215 pounds he’s not exactly intimidating. Gurley is a talented offensive player and he’s quite mobile defensively around the perimeter, but he simply doesn’t have the size to bang with bigger centers. Alabama’s power forward spot is often occupied by 6’6”, 218 pound Juwan Gary and 6’6”, 185 pound Darius Miles so generally speaking, Alabama’s frontcourt isn’t super imposing physically. This could be advantageous for the Gators and particularly Colin Castleton who has done well in sealing smaller players around the rim and finishing close hook shots. Alabama hasn’t been great on the defensive glass and Anthony Duruji and Phlandrous Fleming will need to be active in punishing their smaller frontcourt by generating second chance opportunities. The risk with sending offensive rebounders is potential giving up transition opportunities on the other end, which Alabama thrives on, so that will be a schematic choice that will be interesting to see from the Gators. 


For the Gators the key to this game is defense, particularly perimeter defense. Florida knows Alabama is looking to create drives on the perimeter whether by gap creation sets or using the pick and roll and they’ll need to go in with a plan to bump them off those spots and keep them from getting into the paint. On the other end, the Gators will need to establish Castleton when Noah Gurley is in at center, and when it’s Charles Bediako, getting him in space could create high quality offensive possessions.


The game is on Wednesday, January 5th at 7 PM ET and will be broadcast on ESPN 2.


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.