Two games into the SEC season and Florida is playing inspired basketball and after beating a talented LSU team at home they’ve got to be confident they can hang at the top of the SEC standings.
Florida’s next opportunity for a big win will come on Tuesday when they play Alabama. The Crimson Tide are in year two under head coach Nate Oats, a lead man who brought a distinct style to Tuscaloosa–one of the fastest and most three-point heavy attacks in the country. Coming over from Buffalo he said he would continue to play at a breakneck pace, and that’s a promise he has lived up to. Alabama is currently 5th in the country in length of possession, and the fastest high major team. He has recruited to play fast, he has preached playing fast, and he coaches a system that opens his team up to playing fast, and for that reason Florida will need to be prepared for a track meet.
Of course, this year the Gators will welcome that style of play. They’re 26th in average possession length themselves, a major increase from their 236th position last year, and they’ll be more than happy to race up and down the floor with the Tide. This game could very well come down to who is able to thrive in transition between two teams that pride themselves on the ability to do so, so that will be a storyline to watch.
For Alabama, it’s point guard Jahvon Quinerly that conducts the frantic style of play. Quinerly has had a rocky start to his college career, between a disastrous freshman season at Villanova that saw him struggle to get on the floor and a brief stop at Arizona that ended when he, and the coaching staff there, was named in the FBI probe regarding illegal payments to players. While his college career started with several speed bumps he now looks to have a home in Tuscaloosa and he’s starting to look like the five star McDonald’s All-American that he was in high school.
A 6’1”, 170 pound point guard, Quinerly is built for speed and has a fantastic handle that allows him to play under control even when running at max speed. Whenever he gets an outlet pass defenses instantly have to get back and start matching up or Quinerly will punish them with a drive straight into the teeth of the defense. Once in the paint he’s a good enough finisher if teams give him space, or a tremendous passer to find shooters if defenses collapse on him.
For Florida, a way they could slow down Alabama’s transition attack is to try not to let Quinerly get the ball at all. If they score, denying Quinerly the ball would slow down Alabama’s offense if anyone else has to take the ball up the floor and would instantly make their primary attack less potent.
Another guard to be aware of is Jaden Shackelford who is a shooter who is the beneficiary of opportunities when defenses collapse onto Quinerly. He hasn’t totally shot up to his potential at 36% so far but he’s hit enough to remind people of how good a shooter he is and can explode at any moment.
In fact, getting up a high volume of threes and sacrificing a bit of efficiency is in Alabama’s game plan. Over 47% of their field goal attempts come from behind the arc, the 24th most in the country, and they’re willing to have a few cold stretches or a lower overall field goal percentage if it means they’re going to end the game with more makes than their opponent. The Gators will have to be aware of a constant onslaught of threes, and know that most of the time when Alabama’s perimeter players are driving they aren’t totally concerned with finishing on their own, they’re trying to find open shooters for threes. The Gators would be wise to not over help and challenge some of Alabama’s players to score individually, and living with a few tough layups could be far better than giving up a large volume of three point attempts.
The overall strength of this Crimson Tide team is their rotation of long, athletic wings. John Petty, Herb Jones, Josh Primo, and Keon Ellis are all guard/forward combos in the 6’5” to 6’7” range and often Coach Oats will play three at a time to bring length and defensive disruption to the floor. This length helps them on the defensive end where they can deny ball reversals and make passing lanes cluttered, often forcing defenses to push their offense further from the hoop. With the Gators often playing some smaller perimeter players like Noah Locke and Tyree Appleby at the two-guard position this length could cause problems and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Gators had a handful of turnovers.
Alabama is also one of the best teams in the country at limiting assists, something they do by taking away passing lanes and trying to make opposing players score one on one. Teams have had success against the Gators doing this with Noah Locke and Scottie Lewis–taking away their passing lanes and daring them to go one on one, and Alabama will certainly do the same.
Another reason Coach Oats likes to put out this many long wings is the fact that Alabama doesn’t have a big, bruising center and they want to bring size to the other positions to make up for it. Alabama’s starting center is Jordan Bruner, a 6’9”, 210 pound graduate transfer from Yale. He’s tremendously skilled with great touch around the rim and great vision when passing from the high post, but he simply lacks the bulk to hang with a lot of bigger post players. Bruner will also fall in love with the three and is good for a few attempts per game despite shooting only 25% so far this season. It’s likely the Gators will dare him to shoot on a couple of occasions given his low three-point percentage, but he has a decent stroke and it wouldn’t be shocking if some of those attempts started falling.
Alabama has had a bit of a strange season so far in that they have one really head scratching loss but now one of the best wins in all of college basketball. They lost to Western Kentucky, who is a solid mid-major but one the Crimson Tide probably have no business losing to. Then, on Saturday night, Alabama went on the road against Tennessee and won by 8. Tennessee is a Final Four pick by many outlets and almost unanimously picked to win the SEC, so for Alabama to get such a comfortable win speaks to their potential.
For the Gators, a key is going to be their defense. Against LSU the Gators had some decent moments defensively but also some very poor ones, and their pick and roll defense two games back against Vanderbilt was at times dismal. Florida has been scoring the ball consistently and that seems to be going pretty well for them so finding ways to get stops will be a focus.
Florida’s X-factor has to be Colin Castleton who has just put up two consecutive games with 20+ points. He’ll have a size advantage over Jordan Bruner and the Gators should look to exploit it. Castleton pressures opposing defenses as soon as he catches the ball on the inside and he has also been one of the best offensive rebounders in the country and both of those traits will be important as the Gators look to get an edge on Alabama
Alabama is going to take away ball reversals and force some one on one play and luckily the Gators have two players very capable of making plays by themselves and that’s Tre Mann and Tyree Appleby. Both of these players are going to be offensive keys for the Gators and if they can continue to get separation with the dribble while Alabama takes the Gators out of other elements of their offense they’ll be in great shape.
After Alabama the Gators play a vulnerable Kentucky squad and they’ll have a chance to go on a big run here. If they can get a road win Tuesday in Tuscaloosa this team will carry on the momentum they have deservedly built to start the SEC season and prove they can beat just about anyone in the league.