Florida Versus Alabama Preview

With only two games remaining in the regular season the Florida Gators (20-9, 10-6 SEC) will look to get one more quality win when they take on the Alabama Crimson Tide (20-9, 12-4 SEC) on March 5th in Gainesville. Things had been pretty crowded at the top of the SEC standings for much of the season with the Gators even having an outside shot at winning the regular season as recently as two weeks ago, but now things are starting to spread out. Currently Florida sits at 6th in the league at 10-6, with Kentucky and Auburn just ahead of them at 11-5. Auburn is set to play Missouri and Georgia, and given that those are two teams they’ll be projected to handle easily, it could be a challenge for the Gators to catch them. Kentucky has Vanderbilt and Tennessee making a split somewhat possible, so if the Gators were to close out the season with two wins to get to a tiebreak they could jump up a spot.


Luckily for the Gators there isn’t much pressure behind them as at 7th and 8th in the league are Mississippi State and LSU at 8-8, making it unlikely that Florida could drop further down the standings. So, it’s looking like they’re most likely to hold in 6th place but there is a chance they jump a spot if they’re able to take down Alabama.


For the Crimson Tide it’s all about holding on to the second spot in the league. They’re currently 12-4, one game behind Tennessee, but given that the Volunteers beat them twice they have the tiebreaker so it’s quite unlikely they could leapfrog them. They’re currently tied with South Carolina, and they’d love to end up winning that race starting with a win against the Gators.


As of March 3rd the Gators are 33rd in the NET, and are a #7 seed according to Bracket Matrix. Alabama is currently 7th in the NET meaning a quad-1 opportunity for the Gators–which could amount to a seed line jump with a win. 


Fortunately for the Gators, the Crimson Tide are looking a lot more vulnerable than when the two teams faced off on February 21st. At the time Alabama had won 12 of their last 14 games, many of which were blowouts. Since they just got by the Gators 98-93 in overtime they have lost 2 of their last three, falling to Kentucky and Tennessee. Their one win came against Ole Miss, a team in the midst of losing six of seven games. Head coach Nate Oats has been calling out their effort in press conferences and it’s clear they aren’t playing their best basketball at the moment–something the Gators will hope to capitalize on. 


In the first meeting of the season it was a tight game throughout, with All-American hopeful Mark Sears eventually taking over in the late second half and overtime. Florida had done a great job of slowing him down for much of the game but eventually his talent took over, and he was the difference. His backcourt mate Aaron Estrada was also effective when the Gators forced the ball out of Sears’ hands, and forward Grant Nelson had one of his best games of the season with 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 blocks.


Leading the way for Florida was Walter Clayton who had 27 points and 5 assists.


Going into the second meeting the conversation on both sides of the floor will be defense. Both Florida and Alabama are teams that are all about offense–and they’re both teams that have struggled on the defensive end. While Florida’s defense has been a challenge all year it hasn’t seemed that frustration on that end has started to set it–but that isn’t exactly the case in Alabama. After giving up 117 points to Kentucky (yes 117–and that was in regulation) Nate Oats challenged his players for their lack of defensive effort and execution, imploring them to show some kind of pride on that end. Florida was able to take advantage of Alabama’s poor perimeter defense for much of the first game, and Alabama was able to get anything they wanted against the Gators down the stretch. Which team is able to figure out how to slow down their opponent will have a massive advantage in round two, though that will be easier said than done. Not only is Alabama first in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom, but they are way ahead of second place, and in the mix to have a top three offensive efficiency in recorded history. Florida’s offensive efficiency has been solid (15th in KenPom)–but they’re not chasing records. It all starts with trying to keep Mark Sears and Aaron Estrada out of the paint which the Gators did a decent job of–it was just nearly impossible to keep one of the best offensive backcourts in recent college basketball history at bay for 45 minutes of action. 


Alabama might even get a boost in this game as guard Latrell Wrightsell, who has missed their last four games starting with Florida due to injury, could return. He warmed up in their most recent game against Tennessee and didn’t end up playing, though the fact he was on the court could mean he’s able to return on Tuesday against Florida. Wrightsell has been an absolutely lethal shooter for the Crimson Tide at 45% from deep, and you could feel his absence against the Gators when Alabama did go cold for long stretches from behind the arc. Wrightsell might not have the on-ball creation juice of Sears or Estrada but he knows his role and plays it extremely well as the ball always seems to find him wide open off of dribble penetration. 


Florida will also be looking for a better effort from their frontcourt this time around when it comes to rebounding and defense. Alabama is quite undersized in the frontcourt but ended up out-offensive rebounding the Gators 21-17 and that hasn’t happened many times this season–and it’s particularly frustrating for Florida to lose the battle to a team with less size and length than them. The Gators also won’t be happy with the fact that 6’10” Grant Nelson had arguably his best game of the season against them with 22, scoring in isolation against just about whoever was guarding him. Since the 22 point performance against the Gators he has had 13, 10, and 3 point games–so it appears his output could have been a bit of an anomaly or a vulnerability in Florida’s defense. 


Playing a team for a second time is never easy, particularly when the first game ended with overtime heartbreak. With the Crimson Tide built similarly to the Gators this is going to be another high-octane affair, and while both teams love to pile on the points it could be the team that executes better defensively that comes away victorious. 


Florida and Alabama tip off at 7 PM ET on March 5th, and the game will be televised on ESPN.

Eric Fawcett
Eric is a basketball coach and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has been found at NBA international properties, 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 @ericfawcett_.