After a perfect start to the season the Gators will look to keep their record spotless on Wednesday taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes in the final of the Fort Myers Tip Off. The Gators looked excellent on Monday taking down the California Golden Bears with relative ease while the Buckeyes earned the right to play in the final by knocking off an excellent Seton Hall team. This is a marquee matchup that will certainly be a “quadrant 1” game in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament committee and if Florida were to win it would be a huge indication of how good they are as a team.
The Buckeyes are 4-1 so far to start the season. They didn’t start the season particularly hot, opening with only a 67-66 point win over Akron before playing a relatively close 84-74 game with Niagara. They then took care of business by hammering Bowling Green 89-58 before taking their only loss to Xavier on the road by a score of 71-65. The Buckeyes played clearly their best game against Seton Hall, winning 79-76 on a last second three by freshman Meechie Johnson to take the lead and ultimately come away victorious.
Led by coach Chris Hotmann the Buckeyes are a team that returned a lot of talent from the 2020-21 season. One might have thought that the Gators and Buckeyes were on their way to play each other in the NCAA Tournament last season, but the Buckeyes were upset by Oral Roberts who then, of course, went on to best the Gators.
Ohio State plays a rather unique style of basketball that relies heavily on post ups. When you hear about a team that relies heavily on post touches, you may be visualizing a team with a number of massive post players that overwhelm opponents physically. However, that’s not actually the case. Most of their frontcourt pieces are in the 6’7”-6’8” range, but are awfully strong and physical, particularly their leader EJ Liddell. Liddell is a junior who is one of the best players in college basketball, a familiar story of a player who is extremely talented and productive but whose physical limitations keep him from making the jump to the NBA. He’s listed at 6’7” and 240 pounds and his ability to score on the inside against larger players is nothing short of spectacular. We saw this on full display against Seton Hall where he was regularly getting buckets and drawing fouls against 6’10” and 7’0” centers and he’ll certainly go at Colin Castleton without fear. Ohio State will also use Liddell as a pick and roll ball handler, something that puts opposing frontcourt players in uncomfortable situations defensively, and sometimes they’ll also just put him out on the perimeter to isolate. He is unquestionably Ohio State’s best player and slowing him down will be at the top of Florida’s scouting report.
When it’s not Liddell, Ohio State has a number of other similar players that can also get it done on the block. A name you might remember is Zed Key, a player who the Gators recruited quite heavily for a time. He’s 6’8” and 245 pounds and shows incredible footwork and touch, and watching him operate in the post can be pure bliss. 6’8”, 225 pound Kyle Young is a savvy veteran who the Buckeyes also love to post up, so that’s another body on the inside to be aware of. Between Liddell, Key, and Young there are a lot of post ups to guard, something that you just don’t see a lot of in modern basketball and it will be a unique matchup for Florida to be aware of. They do have a 6’11”, 255 journeyman in Joey Brunk (who has played for both Butler and Indiana before ending up at Ohio State) and while he generally gets played less than Liddell, Key, and Young, he will likely get more burn to match up with Colin Castleton.
What makes Ohio State’s post-centered offense effective is that not only do they have dudes who can score one on one, but they also run actions away from the ball to occupy help defenders and free up shooters. When the ball is entered into the post it isn’t a situation where the other players on the floor stand and watch, they will run stagger screens and designed cuts to punish defenses who fall asleep and expect the possession to finish with the post touch. The Buckeyes have had the 8th best offense in the country so far this season after being the 4th best offensive team in the country a year ago so they have proven the effectiveness of this style.
Where Ohio State is vulnerable is on the defensive end. The Buckeyes aren’t particularly big or athletic and sometimes they can look a bit slow and plodding, something that was particularly noticeable against Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament–and most of those same players returned. Ohio State’s favorite lineup features EJ Liddell and Zed Key in the frontcourt, and Colin Castleton is going to have a huge length advantage over both of them. Florida is certainly going to try to get the ball into him and try to let him use his length to score over the top of the smaller Buckeyes, while Key and Liddell will try to use their strength and low center of gravity to push him further from the hoop before he’s able to catch the ball. Anthony Duruji will have his hands full trying to bang with these players on the inside defensively, though he should have a big advantage offensively. He is much more athletic than any of Ohio State’s frontcourt options and the Gators would be wise to try and get him going downhill and towards the hoop given he’ll have a slower option trying to guard him.
Overall Ohio State is a very talented team but much of that talent is in the frontcourt. Their backcourt has some excellent prospects but right now they are quite young. Nearly all their point guard minutes go to freshmen Meechie Johnson and Malaki Branham who are both really good players but not yet high level Big Ten caliber guards. Meechie Johnson in particular has struggled with turnovers this season, something that Tyree Appleby and Brandon McKissic are likely to feast on. Jamari Wheeler, a Penn State transfer and former teammate of Myreon Jones, is a solid defender but isn’t much of an offensive threat and will be another ball handler the Gators will hound and likely make uncomfortable.
The biggest matchup problem for Florida might end up being 6’6” senior wing Justin Ahrens, a physical swingman who is a career 42% from three over four seasons. He’s extremely intelligent playing away from the ball and is the perfect player to capitalize on all the defensive attention that goes towards the Ohio State post players. He’s a bit of a silent assassin, someone that doesn’t demand the ball or take a lot of shots, and then at the end of the game you see he had an efficient 18 points.
Florida should be cautiously optimistic in this matchup. Ohio State is a team that lives and dies with their post play but they don’t have the size or athleticism advantage against their Gators. Their weakness is guard play, and so far this season the Gators have devoured teams that didn’t have above average ball handlers to deal with Florida’s pressure. Ohio State has interior scorers that are as good as anyone in the country and have shooters all around the floor so they are more than capable of beating the Gators, but the pathway to Florida winning with their defense, speed, and length is fairly apparent.
This should be an outstanding game and it’s set to tip off at 8:30 ET on Fox Sports 1 on Wednesday, November 24th.