Florida Versus Kansas State SEC-Big 12 Challenge Preview

After easily dispatching South Carolina, the easiest game on Florida’s SEC schedule, the Gators now begin what appears to be their most difficult stretch of the season with Kansas State in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Following this game they’ll take on Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, so Florida will have the opportunities to get quad-1 wins they desperately need–though none of these games are going to come easy. 


It all starts with Kansas State who sits at at 17-3 on the season and 6-2 in the Big 12 where they currently hold a share of the lead. The Big 12 is considered the best conference in college basketball this season and right now the Wildcats have a legitimate shot at winning it. This would be a huge and expected outcome for the program who was picked to finish last in the league after entering a rebuilding year under newly minted head coach Jerome Tang who came to the Wildcats after a lengthy stint as Scott Drew’s associate head coach at Baylor. 


Currently the Wildcats sit at #5 in the AP Poll, though they are coming off a loss to #12 ranked Iowa State on Tuesday might suggest a slight dip would be coming–of course depending on what happens Saturday. Kansas State has had some tremendous wins in the league taking down Kansas, Baylor, and Texas among others–earning themselves a lot of clout with AP voters.


While they deserve a ton of credit for the wins they have gathered, the analytics aren’t quite as high on Kansas State as voters. They currently sit at 26th in KenPom, the gospel of evaluating teams analytically, and they are 17th in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Those are still tremendous numbers, but it’s a big difference from the #5 rank they’ll have next to their name when the Gators take them on Saturday. It will be a road game for the Gators in Manhattan, Kansas which makes this a quad-1 opportunity that will almost certainly stick as a quad-1 no matter what–which are exactly the opportunities Florida needs right now. 


Part of the reason that voters are higher on Kansas State than analytics is how the Wildcats have been able to pull out close games. They are 4-0 in overtime contests this year which in the eyes of analytics are closer to coin flips than indications of one team being a lot better than the other–though voters will see those wins as big ones that deserve a lot of credit. While close wins in overtime don’t always move the needle with metrics, the Wildcats deserve a lot of credit for their ability to execute in big moments and Coach Tang deserves a ton of credit for his ability to draw up late game plays offensively. 


Of course, there is another massive storyline for Florida fans–a meeting between the Gators and Keyontae Johnson who transferred to Kansas State after having his career at Florida ended for medical reasons. While a lot of schools wouldn’t clear Johnson, Kansas State would–and Coach Tang was also up to the challenge. During his time at Baylor he had players who had heart conditions that had to be managed, and that experience made him comfortable with the Johnson situation. It will be an extremely emotional time for Johnson to see his former team, and it will be equally emotional for the Gators who were on the team last year to see Johnson on the floor again. 


After not being able to see the court for so long there was always going to be a lot of questions regarding what Johnson would look like if he could play again but those have been answered early. A preseason All-SEC selection before having his season ended at Florida, he has picked up exactly where he was at and has been outstanding this season averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds a game while shooting 39% from the field–essentially playing as if he didn’t have any time off. His style of play is a little bit different than it was at Florida as he isn’t quite as explosive finishing above the rim (though he will still show those flashes) but he has added even more skill and veteran savvy and it has allowed him to be one of the best players in one of the best leagues in the country. As mentioned earlier, Kansas State was picked by media to finish last in the Big 12 in the preseason poll, and a lot of that was due to the uncertainty of what Johnson would be able to contribute. Well, if you want to know exactly how impactful Johnson can be as a player, his ability to be at 100% (or close to) has taken a team that was picked to finish last to having an opportunity to win what is one of the best leagues in the country. Florida fans are going to be incredibly happy to see the success Johnson is having, though it may come with some pain Saturday as Johnson could easily put up some massive numbers on his former team.


While Johnson deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Wildcats he isn’t the only one responsible. Point guard Markquis Nowell has also been tremendous, playing as one of the top point guards in the country despite not always getting mentioned in that conversation. He’s averaging 17 points and 8 assists per game which should absolutely put him in the conversation as one of the best point guards in the country and as Kansas State continues to stack up wins, awareness of him will grow. Nowell is one of the most fun players to watch in the country, and that’s because he’s listed at 5’8” and honestly–he looks even shorter than that. However, that doesn’t stop him from controlling everything that happens on the floor offensively using his dribble to get wherever he wants on the floor and then using either his elite vision or shotmaking ability to end the possession with a bucket for his team. He’s also impactful on the defensive end averaging 2.4 steals per game and if a ball handler loses sight of him for a minute, he could come over and snatch the ball. 


Defensively the Wildcats have been solid, but not outstanding. They are 40th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and the eye test tells you they are a lot better on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive one. The Wildcats have some physical players that play hard, but they don’t have a lot of outstanding athleticism or physical tools on the wings–though they have a stud interior defender in Nae’Qwan Tomlin who guards the rim and anchors the defense. Florida’s defense has been incredibly stout in recent games so they should be able to contend with Kansas State’s offense, even with how potent it can be, but the story of this game may come down to if Florida is able to score at all.


It’s also worth noting that the Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan has become a madhouse with the recent success of the Wildcats and it has become one of the most difficult places to play in the country which has to be factored in. While the Wildcats may not be quite as good as their #5 ranking in the AP Poll suggests they are a veteran, experienced team with an outstanding duo in Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell, and they look to have found an excellent head coach in Jerome Tang. Add all that up with a great home court environment and this will be a massive game.


Florida and Kansas State will take place January 28th at 6 PM ET and will be televised on ESPN 2. 

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_.