Gators Prepare For Important Game Versus Utah State

Circled on the calendar before the season even started as one of Florida’s marquee non-conference games Utah State is certain to be a challenge and a game that presents the Gators with a great resume building opportunity. The Aggies of Utah State really came onto the scene with a tremendous season a year ago, one that saw them get an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Returning most of the talent from that team they have been a mid-major darling many have looked at as a possible Cinderella team in March and the Gators will have the task of taking a win from them on a neutral floor.

Season To Date

Utah State is 11-2 with wins over LSU, South Florida, and Fresno State as the highlights. Their two losses have come to Saint Mary’s on the road and BYU on a neutral floor, both strong teams that the Aggies have no shame in losing against.

They currently sit at #55 in the NET rankings, a number that seems surprisingly low but as we’ve seen from a Florida standpoint the algorithm seems to really ding teams for losses, even if they are to good teams.

In KenPom they sit at 52nd, another surprisingly low number but with the small sample size of an early season not too much can be taken from that.

Returning Star

Neemius Queta is a 7’0” center for the Aggies, a player with great athleticism and size that allows him to be one of the best shot blockers in the country. In the offseason he suffered an injury that was thought to keep him out for quite some time but luckily he returned 3 games ago.

A sophomore, he spent his summer going through the NBA draft process where some teams were really intrigued. Ultimately he decided to come back but the fact he was in the mix to get an NBA job shows just how good of a player he is. There aren’t many 7-footers out there in college basketball these days and now the Gators are going to have to contend with one.

Player To Watch

Sam Merrill is one of the flat-out best players in college basketball this year. Not just for mid-majors, I’m talking about one of the best players in all of college hoops who should be in the mix for an All-American team this season.

A 6’5” guard he has prototypical size for the position and he uses it to either score or be a distributor.

As a scorer, he’s as talented as it gets when it comes to shooting the ball. Shooting a blistering 44.1% from behind the arc this year he’s dominated defenses and even if teams are trying to take away his jumper he’ll find a way to get it off. He can shoot off the dribble from range with ease and if he ever gets lost when defenses are scrambling you can say goodnight because he’s shooting 63.6% on unguarded 3-point attempts.

He’s not just a scorer as he’s also a tremendous passer. Out of the screen and roll he’ll use his size to make passes overtop of defenders and he always plays the game with his head up so he’s not going to miss an open cutter or a relocating shooter that found some room.

One area he is mortal offensively is when it comes to finishing at the rim where he hasn’t been able to show the same touch that he has demonstrated on the perimeter. Considering how long he is you would think he’d find ways to finish around the rim but that hasn’t been the case yet and he’s only finished at a 42.5% clip, a well below-average number.

Merrill is going to be the initiator on pretty much every offensive set and the Gators will need to be prepared to guard him. This is a talented Utah State team and it isn’t as simple as saying if you stop Merrill you stop the Aggies because they do have other great players but he’s a special talent and limiting him would do wonders in getting a win.

Disciplined Offense

Utah State was one of the best offensive teams in the mid-major ranks last season and they so far have followed it up with another efficient start to this season.

Their offense is simply beautiful to watch. They move the ball, they have players who pressure defenses with their ability to score one-on-one, and they perfectly blend the balance of playing within a system and seeing weaknesses they can break the play to exploit.

They don’t turn the ball over, they take good shots, and when they miss them they are a tireless offensive rebounding team.

Utah State runs a lot of pick and rolls and they can beat you with it a lot of different ways. They’ve got ball handlers like Sam Merrill and Abel Porter who are wizards making decisions out of the play, either finding the open man or getting right to hoop for a layup. If no one challenges them they can also rise up and hit the pull-up jumper as well.

They also can use their passing ability to hit the roll man, especially now that Queta is back healthy. Trying to stop that 7’0” giant from rolling down the lane and catching a pass can be difficult and it’s something that defenses have to react to.

However, more than that what makes Utah State a special offensive team is how they send cutters out of the pick and roll and how they’re able to hit them with passes for layups.

You see, when Utah State runs a pick and roll it doesn’t just involve the ball handler and the screener, the other three players on the floor are looking to be scorers too. When defenses react to the initial screen the weak side players are always looking to screen for each other and then cut to the basket where an easy layup will be available. If the defense takes that away that probably means a shooter has been left open.

Teams that only involve two players on a pick and roll play can be easy to defend but by being active away from the ball and looking for cuts the Aggies are truly a spectacular offensive team. Particularly adept at finding space for cuts is forward Justin Bean who always seems to find a path to the rim for an easy layup when the defense falls asleep. The Gators are going to need to be locked in defensively for this one taking on such a potent offensive team.

Dedication To Rebounding

Utah State takes care of the glass and that allows them to control games. They are currently 3rd in the country in defensive rebounding and 65th in offensive rebounding, and a lot of that sample size was before Neemias Queta returned so they might even be better than those numbers indicate.

Rebounding hasn’t been a strength of the Gators and they just got pounded on their defensive glass against Providence. Luckily that game wasn’t close enough for it to matter but against Utah State if they give up extra possessions they could be in trouble. The Aggies are so efficient offensively that giving them a ton of extra possessions would be a disaster so the Gators will need to be dedicated to finding bodies and boxing out.

Florida currently sits at 164th in the country in defensive rebounding and 130th in offensive rebounding.

Defensive Intensity

Coach Craig Smith and his team definitely hang their hat on the offensive end but that doesn’t mean they sacrifice any level of energy on the defensive side. A roster full of long wings and intelligent defensive players they can be tough to move the ball against and tough to score on. Defensive rotations are particularly tight and at the back of their defense they have Neemias Queta back who is an elite shot blocker.

The Gators may try to keep Kerry Blackshear Jr. on the perimeter to draw Queta out from the paint. If he’s allowed to stay near the rim and be a help defender it could be challenging for the Gators to get points on the rim but if he chases Blackshear to the perimeter he won’t be able to be an impactful shot blocker. Blackshear is only shooting 26% from three on the season so there is a chance Queta would still keep a foot in the paint to be able to help at the rim but attempting to space him out could be wise.

Florida likes to run a lot of ball screens and they’ll see a bit of a different style of defense from Utah State who likes to play NBA-style “drop” coverage. In this style of defense the big man guarding the screener will park himself in the paint to take away the rim and the player guarding the ball handler will go overtop of the screen. By going overtop of the screen you take away the chance at the pull-up jumper and with the big man in the paint you are taking away the chance at a layup. What is left is the midrange jumper, a difficult and analytically unkind shot not many players want to take.

A few teams had great success using this style of pick and roll defense against the Gators last season as they dared Andrew Nembhard to be a scorer instead of a passer. They won’t overplay and give him passing angles and they won’t let him sit behind the screen and shoot so he’ll have to find a way to attack and be an individual scorer.

Primarily a man defense team the Aggies did mix in a zone against BYU that was quite effective, a look that set up in a 1-3-1 but used 2-3 principles with the wings responsible for guarding the corners. The 1-3-1 allowed them to use their length up at the top to deter passes and it also kept Queta near the rim where he could be a shot blocking menace. It worked well for them and they may pull it out against the Gators.

While Florida hasn’t seen a lot of zone they have been excellent against it.

Against man defense the Gators are at 0.887 points per possession and against zone defense they are 1.212 points per possession.

For that reason Utah State might just stick to their man defense but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sprinkled in some zone.

Matchup Outlook

Florida’s defense isn’t in midseason form yet and they are going to have a tall task in trying to slow down the Aggies. Sam Merrill will be a handful and even if they take him out of the game Abel Porter and Justin Bean are capable of shouldering the offensive load.

Rebounding will also be a concern for the Gators as they have been outrebounded by teams that are worse on the glass than Utah State so they’ll need to show an improved effort in that area. Utah State is too good offensively for the Gators to give extra possessions away so they’ll have to be focused on rebounding.

Utah State’s defensive strengths of taking away the 3-point line as well as the rim could make this a tough game for Andrew Nembhard who has historically struggled against this style of defense. The Aggies are going to make him a scorer and if he’s not up to the challenge it could be tough for the Gators to put up points.

The Gators are going to need other playmakers to step up to win. Tre Mann just had an encouraging game against Providence and the Gators could desperately use his individual offensive creation. If the Aggies take Nembhard out of the game Mann will need to be prepared to create a shot and he could definitely be up for the challenge.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. matching up with Neemias Queta is one of the best center matchups anyone is going to see in college basketball this season and whoever comes out on top could see their team getting a win. Foul trouble has been a problem for Blackshear and the Gators need him to stay on the floor so how they choose to guard on the inside will be interesting. Florida likes to send a double team on the inside but against a Utah State team that shoots the ball well it could be tough.

This is a big game for the Gators and it offers a great resume win. If they can pull this one off, they’ll be on the right trajectory moving towards the SEC season.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on 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 @Efawcett7.