Fresh off a commanding victory over Vanderbilt the Gators head back home to Gainesville to take on the struggling Georgia Bulldogs, an opportunity for the Gators to increase their win total in hopes of a better seed come Selection Sunday. Wednesday’s win over the Commodores made it five consecutive for the Gators, their longest SEC winning streak since two seasons ago when they rattled off eight straight. They’ll have a great chance on Saturday against Georgia to increase the current streak to six games with the Bulldogs currently on a nine game slide. With the Gators playing confident basketball this should be a great ball game and it’s hopefully one where they can continue an efficient stretch of play. Here is everything you need to know before Saturday’s matchup.
Florida and Georgia met in Athens in the middle of January and the Gators were able to come out victorious by a score of 62-52. This game was no work of art as both teams really struggled to score and no one seemed to be able to get loose and establish any rhythm on either side. It was also a game of runs as the Gators took a double-digit lead into halftime only to see Georgia go on a run of their own to start the second frame to establish a five-point lead. Riding some timely shooting from KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke the Gators were able to get back in front and they never looked back from then. Even though they got the road win not all was peachy for the Gators as this was the game Keith Stone suffered his season-ending knee injury after playing perhaps his best basketball of the season in the first half. Another interesting element of the game was that it was during the period of time Jalen Hudson was ineffective and he only played 11 minutes. I’m sure that will be this different this time around and hopefully he can surprise the Bulldogs.
Bulldogs Ready To Pounce?
As I mentioned before the Bulldogs are on a nine game losing streak and have only won once in their last 14 games, a triumph over Texas in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Even though they’ve been on a losing streak, they’ve actually played really well recently. Their last four games have been against some solid teams in LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Auburn, and though they came out on the losing side of all those games they were all losses within 4 points and they lost those 4 games by a combined 8 points. To me, that indicates a team that is playing some much-improved basketball and they very easily could have won any of those contests. What has been behind that improvement? Balanced scoring. In 3 of those 4 games they have had 5 or more double-digit scorers and for a team without a go-to guy that is going to be a requirement. With a newfound offensive identity that spreads things out the scouting report for the Gators is going to look a lot differently than it did in the first matchup and they’ll have to be ready for offense coming from multiple pieces.
Even though Georgia is a much more balanced squad of late there is still a leader that anchors things on both sides of the floor and that’s Nicolas Claxton who leads the Bulldogs in points (12.8), rebounds (8.8), steals (1.1), and blocks (2.4). At 6’11” he’s exceedingly long with a good motor and the ability to hustle on the offensive glass and he could be a headache for Florida’s frontcourt. They did manage him pretty well in the first matchup as he was held to 9 points, 8 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. It should also be noted that the Gators forced him into 6 turnovers, a number that Georgia coach Tom Crean was none too pleased with. Knowing he can be prone to turnovers I’m expecting a lot of quick double teams from the Gators to hopefully force a bad pass. Florida should be able to double down with relative confidence knowing that Georgia isn’t a great 3-point shooting team (33.5%, 219th in the country) and shouldn’t be able to abuse the Gators for giving perimeter players some extra room.
Point Guard Problems
One issue Tom Crean inherited when he came to Georgia was the lack of a true point guard. Tyree Crump fits the mold from a physical standpoint but isn’t a true distributor, and overall the lack of a traditional ball mover has been a problem. Turnovers have been a major issue for the Bulldogs and with no player averaging more than 2.0 assists per game they don’t have anyone you can be certain can go find a shot for a teammate. Knowing this the Gators might crank up the pressure on the perimeter and see who can make a play and I think that strategy of hunting for steals could work well for them.
Cleaning The Glass
Offensive rebounding has been a focus for Crean’s team and the Gators will have to be ready for 23rd best offensive rebounding squad in the country. Nicolas Claxton, Rayshaun Hammonds, and Derek Ogbeide are all monsters on the offensive glass and even guards Christian Harrison and Jordan Harris love to get into the mix on a missed shot too. Florida is going to be able to force some bad shots by the Bulldogs and they’ll have to be ready to end the possession with a defensive board.
Battling weight and conditioning issues at the time, Isaiah Stokes didn’t play when Florida first saw Georgia and he’ll be an interesting addition to the battle. He’s had some good moments finishing inside during the second half of the SEC season and he should have a natural matchup against Georgia with similarly sized Derek Ogbeide who is 6’9” and 250 pounds. The dimension of Stokes in the frontcourt will give a very different look than what Georgia saw last time and I’ll be looking to see what his impact will be. He’s still getting abused defensively at times by teams who put him in screen and roll coverage and he probably hasn’t been as effective finishing inside as you might think but he has had some great flashes and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he checked into the game and put up 6 quick points on the inside.
Living And Dying…
Florida has a reputation as being a team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer but it should be noted that over their 5-game winning streak they have only shot 31.4% from deep, a number that frankly isn’t very good. A lot of that has been due to the fact Noah Locke, hobbled by injury, has lost his touch a bit and has shot 18.8% from three during the winning streak after shooting 44% up until that point this season. Honestly, I think it’s good to see that they have won some games even when they haven’t shot well (they did shoot well against LSU and the second Vanderbilt game in that stretch) as it shows that they don’t need to exclusively shoot threes to score. A big part of the reason the Gators have improved their offense is the fact they have made a more concentrated effort of getting the ball inside and I think the fact they’ve won some games while being terrible from three is an indication it’s working. You’d love to see them knock down a bunch of jumpers against Georgia but even if they don’t, know they’ll still have a chance to win.
Before the winning streak the Gators were probably (err, definitely, let’s be real here) on the outside looking in when it came to the NCAA Tournament picture but with the wins they’ve gotten they are now in pretty much everyone’s projection. According to Bracket Matrix (a composite of over 100 brackets) the Gators are a 10 seed and to me that sounds about right after their current body of work. They’re sitting at 29th in the NET rankings which might suggest the NCAA will view them as even higher than a #10 but given that this is the first year they have used that metric we can’t be totally sure how they will weigh it. Given Georgia’s struggles this year it’s not going to be an opportunity for a big win but it is definitely an opportunity for a bad loss that would almost certainly drop them a seed or more in most projections. It’s a game the Gators are supposed to win and they need to make it happen given their somewhat fragile standing in the NCAA Tournament picture.