Following a road victory against Alabama that got them back into the NCAA Tournament picture the Gators get another opportunity for a massive win against the 21-4 LSU Tigers, a team who currently sits at second in the SEC at 11-1 and has ridden a streak of winning 14 of their last 15 games to a #13 rank in the AP Poll. Though beating the red-hot Tigers is a tough hill to climb it presents the Gators with an opportunity for their biggest win of the season, one that would do wonders for their place in the NCAA Tournament projection. With the game being played in Baton Rouge the challenge is heightened even more but that means the reward for a Florida win would be that much greater. Here are some things to consider before Wednesday night’s matchup.
Incredible Record Or Fool’s Gold?
LSU’s record of 21-4 (11-1 in SEC play) looks extremely impressive but if you ask me, it’s a bit of fool’s gold.
Let’s start with non-conference play. The Tigers went 10-3 out of conference and lost against the two best teams they played against, Florida State and Houston. They also had a bad loss to a terrible Oklahoma State team. They did beat some solid teams in Furman and St. Mary’s, but they didn’t step up to the biggest challenges they had.
Now, let’s look at the 11-1 SEC slate that has everyone excited about the Tigers.
First of all, LSU has had 3 overtime games against Mississippi State, Missouri, and Arkansas and has won all three. Now, there is certainly something to be said about their ability to pull out a tight game and come through in the clutch but any analytics expert will tell you that if a game goes into overtime it’s essentially a coin flip finish. I personally think there is something to be said for a team that can execute in the extra frame and pull out a win, but I also am a full believer that there is a good deal of luck in being able to win an overtime game and for LSU to go 3-0 shows they have some charm.
As well, the unbalanced scheduling of the SEC has been extremely kind to LSU. They are yet to play Tennessee and they have gotten to play Georgia and Arkansas twice, two of the weaker teams in the conference. They have also gotten lucky when it comes to the ebbs and flows of team’s seasons as they caught Ole Miss at the start of a 5 of 6 losing streak and just got to play Auburn last week when they had fully cooled off after a hot start.
In the spirit of fairness, I will point out that Kentucky is playing it’s best basketball of the season right now and LSU just beat them on the road and that is an incredible win. I’m not suggesting LSU is a bad team or anything, but I do think their schedule has broken nicely for them and I don’t think they are as good as their record suggests.
Player To Watch
One of the most fun players to watch in college basketball, Tremont Waters mans the point for the Tigers and uses breakneck speed and shifty changes of direction to keep defenders off-balance and get into the paint. At only 5’11” and 170 pounds he’s usually the smallest guy on the court but he commands most of the attention with his electrifying dribble moves and pinpoint passes. He leads the Tigers with 15.9 points and 6.0 assists per game and slowing him down needs to be the central fixture of the Gators’ scouting report. How the Gators will guard him will be interesting and it starts with who the primary defender is. Obviously Andrew Nembhard would be the natural choice as the opposing point guard but the Gators could definitely cross-match KeVaughn Allen onto him and get Nembhard guarding someone off-ball. Waters has made guards a lot more athletic than Nembhard look silly this year and though I think the Gators’ freshman is up to the challenge getting someone like Allen on the ball could be a better strategy. Being loose with the ball has been a problem at times for Waters as he averages 3.6 turnovers a game and the Gators will definitely be looking to force him into some bad decisions. Nembhard will also have to contend with Waters’ defense on the other side of the court as he is one of the best thieves in college basketball averaging 3.1 steals per game for the Tigers. With his ability to make his presence felt on both sides of the floor be ready to hear Waters’ name a whole lot on Wednesday.
Creating matchup issues has been at the center of LSU’s success this season and they do it largely with their ability to role out multiple giants in the frontcourt. 6’10”, 250 pound Naz Reid, 6’11”, 250 pound Kavell Bigby-Williams, and 6’6”, 225 pound Emmitt Williams (yes, the one Florida almost landed before Williams’ legal troubles scared the Gators off) who plays like Zion Williamson-lite all get major minutes in the frontcourt and it’s size that not a lot of teams can match up with, especially when Reid and Bigby-Williams play next to each other which usually happens for multiple stretches. While Bigby-Williams is more of the traditional shot blocking and rebounding center Reid provides a great deal of scoring punch with his ability to knock down jump shots and finish with soft hands around the hoop and it has resulted in 13.8 points per game. Matching up with those two could be a challenge for the Gators but Keyontae Johnson has really been playing big as of late and could be an important factor for the team once again.
One way Johnson has really helped is in the rebounding department and the Gators are going to have to battle there as LSU works tirelessly on the glass. Currently the 8th best offensive rebounding team in the country the Tigers are coached by Will Wade to pursue every miss and their size and athleticism helps them win a lot of the 50-50 balls. Luckily for the Gators they have actually rebounded really well the last three games, but prior to that they were getting hammered on the glass and that could definitely happen against LSU if they aren’t focused after every shot goes up. Keeping an eye on the rebounding ticker will be an interesting practice during this game as the winner on the glass might be the winner of the game.
Good Shots And Bad Shots
When you look at LSU’s shooting efficiency numbers I think it’s pretty clear where their strengths and weaknesses are
2P: 55.1% (32nd nationally)
3P: 32.5% (262nd nationally)
LSU’s size is going to factor into pretty much everything they do and it definitely shows in the shooting percentages as they are much more comfortable inside the arc than outside the arc. Outside of Naz Reid who is a solid stretch big at 37.1% from three they don’t have a single player shooting 34% or higher. Considering their best shooter is a 6’10” 250 pounder that means their perimeter group is full of guys who don’t space the floor well. The Gators need to be aware of that fact and sell out a bit more at protecting the hoop knowing that the Tigers shouldn’t punish them too regularly. Keying in on Reid should stay a priority, especially on pick and pop plays with Tremont Waters, but other than that protecting the hoop needs to be the #1 priority as the Tigers want to get their shots inside.
On The Mend
Noah Locke has been walking wounded the last few weeks and it seems like the last two games are the first time it’s really affected him as he hasn’t been able to shoot the ball at torrent rate he did to start the year, but he’s soldiering on. I don’t have total clarity on what the lower-body injury is but the team doesn’t think it’s a problem that’s going to respond to rest so the Gators are going to keep playing minutes. Locke, as Andrew Nembhard said in a presser the other day, is a warrior and is playing through a lot of pain and is helping the team even when his shots aren’t falling so I commend him for his ability to fight through pain.
After the big win at Alabama the Gators improved to 33rd in the NCAA’s NET rankings, a very important metric to watch as Florida looks to get into the NCAA Tournament. According to Bracket Matrix (a composite ranking of 100+ bracketologists) the Gators are now in the Big Dance in a play-in game but they still have lots of chances to improve that standing. It, of course, also means the Gators have lots of chances to stumble and fall out of the picture. These are all important games remaining and a road win at LSU would be not just a step but a massive stride in the right direction.
Keys For The Gators
Protect the paint at all costs. I know LSU is at home and therefore will likely shoot the ball better than their season average but I think the Gators need to live with jump shots and sell out at protecting the hoop, something they have done pretty well this season. I’d also love to see the Gators punish LSU when they play big by having Keyontae Johnson a key part of the Princeton offensive sets they’ve been running from the high post and elbows. Getting Johnson to run hard off the chin cuts towards the rim should cause havoc on the slower LSU frontcourt and with Waters being 4 or 5 inches shorter than Andrew Nembhard the passing angle should be there for Nembhard to hit the cutter. LSU hasn’t been stout on the defensive end and after the Gators’ best offensive performance in some time against Alabama they will hopefully have the same success Wednesday. Whoever is guarding Tremont Waters on the perimeter will have to be extremely locked in as keeping him out of the paint would neutralize a lot of the Tigers’ attack. He is the focal point of their offense and if the Gators can’t contain him than they are going to open themselves up to a lot of drop off passes to bigs inside and layups from cutters that Waters can hit with ease. If you stop him, you stop the Tigers.
Florida Gators at LSU Tigers
7 PM EST