Florida Versus UCF NIT Preview

Following the NCAA Tournament bracket reveal was the NIT bracket reveal with the Gators learning their opponent–the UCF Knights.


Unlike the NCAA Tournament, the NIT creates regional brackets as opposed to a true seeding scenario where the best teams receive the weakest opponents. This made the Florida-UCF matchup make a lot of sense, though it wasn’t obvious that the Knights would make the NIT field. In the eyes of many bracketologists they weren’t going to be in the field, so it wasn’t a matchup that the Gators could have predicted. 


Since the Gators are the high seed of the two teams, they will host the game. The NIT doesn’t do neutral sites until later in the tournament, so the Gators will get the advantage of a home court to try and move along to the next round. The winner of the Knights and Gators will go on to face the winner of Oregon and UC Irvine, with Oregon being the higher seed. 


From an overall record standpoint this game is an important one for the Gators as they currently sit at 16-16 on the season. A win would give them an opportunity at a winning record, whereas a loss would obviously end Florida’s season with a losing record. Of course the difference between a losing, .500, or winning season is somewhat arbitrary, but in a sport where recruiting plays a huge role, perception is an important currency and a winning record would at least be something the Gators could market following a disappointing season. 


UCF enters the matchup with Florida sitting at 18-14 on the season. They finished 7th in the American Athletic Conference, a disappointing season relative to expectations. Their best wins on the season are over Oklahoma State, Santa Clara, and Memphis, a few quality wins, but nothing that got them close to the NCAA Tournament field. In terms of bad losses, they dropped games to UNC Asheville in non-conference play and fell to lowly South Florida twice in league play. UNC Asheville went on to win the Big South and will play in the NCAA Tournament and South Florida was 150th in KenPom so these weren’t abysmal losses, but the types of games an AAC team can’t drop if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. 


Entering the NIT the Knights are 65th in KenPom, just behind the Gators who sit at 63rd.


The biggest storyline surrounding UCF is the play of freshman Taylor Hendricks who started the season as a relative unknown but has exploded onto the scene and is now a projected lottery pick in the NBA Draft. The 6’9”, 210 pound forward is averaging 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game while shooting 40% from three, impacting the game in a number of ways. Long, lanky forwards who can create off the dribble and make threes at a high rate are exactly what the NBA is looking for and Hendricks has proven right away that he checks all those boxes. He’s going to be a difficult matchup for the Gators, though the most natural forward to match up with him is Alex Fudge. Stopping Hendricks has to be at the top of Florida’s scouting report, and he’ll look for opportunities to either hit shots or create wild closeouts that he can attack on his way to the rim. 


Unfortunately for the Knights, they haven’t been able to capitlize on the excellence of Hendricks by creating a potent offense. They’re only 89th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and their inconsistent attack was their achilles heel this season. Shooting has actually been a strength of the Knights ranking 83rd in the country in three-point percentage (35.9%) while taking a lot of them (58th in the country in attempts). However, they haven’t been able to put a lot of pressure on the rim to score on the inside. 


Defense is the strength of the Knights as they sit at 49th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Everything starts with the play of the frontcourt with 7’0”, 250 pound Michael Durr and 6’10”, 225 pound Lahat Thioune manning the center position next to Taylor Hendricks at the four. This makes for a long, physical, and athletic frontcourt and they will protect the paint at a high level. It allows the Knights’ guards to be aggressive and active on the perimeter, knowing there is length behind them to cover up any mistakes that may occur. The Knights are 41st in the country in three-point defense, and considering Florida’s inconsistency from behind the arc, it could be a difficult offensive night for the Gators. 


The key to the game for Florida is going to be competitiveness in the paint on both ends. Without Colin Castleton the Gators have struggled both offensively and defensively around the rim and playing a long, physical UCF frontcourt the matchup isn’t exactly in their favor. Florida has a much more veteran backcourt and they’ll have to lean on that experience to try and get an edge. 


This game takes place Wednesday, March 15th at 7 PM ET and it 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_.