Saturday’s loss to Georgia was the worst of the season for the Gators but they don’t have much time to sulk as Wednesday night sees LSU coming into town, a team in the hunt for a #2 seed or higher in the NCAA Tournament. It’s also Senior Night in the O’Dome which is sure to bring out some emotions with some Gators playing for the final time in Gainesville. Here’s what’s on my mind entering Wednesday’s important matchup.
Florida went into Baton Rouge and won an overtime thriller 82-77 in a game that required some heroics from KeVaughn Allen in the second half and overtime to come out on the winning side. This was Florida’s biggest win of the season and got them into the NCAA Tournament picture after their fate prior to that game was ambiguous at best. It also was in the middle of the Gators’ 5-game winning streak, the one that was snapped with Saturday’s disappointing effort versus the Bulldogs.
Losing to Georgia on their home floor did some major damage to Florida’s resume and it puts the Gators in a pretty precarious situation moving forward as it relates to their March Madness chances. Both games remaining in the season (LSU and then Kentucky on the road) wouldn’t be bad losses that would hurt their resume, but if they lost both they would probably remain pretty stagnant in the metrics which would give other teams chances to leapfrog them in the eyes of the Selection Committee. If they win one of those final two regular season games the Gators would almost certainly be in the Big Dance and with the game against Kentucky being at Rupp it’s the home contest with LSU, a team they have already beaten, that becomes the more likely win and one they should be extremely hungry for. Though they aren’t fighting for a certain invitation to the Tournament as they’re already totally in the Tigers have a lot to play for as well as they are in the mix for a #2 seed if they take care of business the rest of the way. A road win in Gainesville would be massive for their resume and they won’t be complacent against the Gators even though they are much higher in the standings.
Players To Watch
Two of LSU’s best players this season have been point guard Tremont Waters and off guard Javonte Smart and both happened to play really poorly in the first game against Florida. Combining for 14 points on 5-20 shooting and 6 turnovers they were totally bottled up and it’s worth noting that 6 of those points came off two deep, desperation threes that Waters put up near the end of overtime and was lucky to hit. How these two play the second time around will be really interesting to see and they get going it could be really difficult for the Gators to defend what is one of the best offensive teams in the country in LSU. I thought the Gators did some really great things defensively, starting with Andrew Nembhard, to cut off Waters’ dribble penetration and forcing it out of his hand and I bet they’ll be ready for him once again.
Matchup To Fear
Naz Reid has a been a dominant force for LSU as a 6’10”, 250 pound monster that can not only score inside but shoot the three at high clip and drive him man off the bounce. He played a strong game against Florida earlier in the season with 16 points and 9 rebounds though the Gators did confuse him into 5 turnovers. If he’s cooking he’s a tough man to guard and outside of Kevarrius Hayes there isn’t anyone on the Gators that can match up with both his size and his quickness off the dribble. The other reason that Reid scares me in this matchup is the fact that the Gators just got their lunch money taken by Georgia’s Nicolas Claxton. Reid has a similar play style to Claxton except he can shoot the ball a bit better and is more powerful inside and if the Gators are going to struggle with Claxton like they did than they could really have their hands full with Reid.
Beware Of Balance
I’ve talked about some of LSU’s most important stars in Tremont Waters, Javonte Smart, and Naz Reid but the real strength of the Tigers is their balance with 4 players averaging double-digit points with 3 others averaging between 7 and 8 points per game. And the one player in the rotation that doesn’t hit that 7-point mark? Darius Days, the Gainesville native who was excellent in the first matchup of the season with 9 points (4-4 shooting) in 11 minutes. LSU has a potent offense and the fact they have primary initiators as well as skilled role players sets them up for a lot of success with the basketball. Having so many skilled scorers could mean Florida needs to get creative in what they do defensively, figuring out who they want to try to take out of the game while tactically deciding who they would rather have taking shots. Who they decide to key on and who they give some space to will be something to watch for on Wednesday.
The Gators already had one freshman fighting an injury with Noah Locke working through hip pain and now they’ll have two with Andrew Nembhard dealing with a back injury. I haven’t been able to get specifics on what the injury was or how it will affect him but he showed a lot of toughness by re-entering the Georgia game and he could very well be the most important player on Florida’s roster. If they were to lose him, things could get very challenging for the orange and blue.
Second Time A Charm?
I’m always interested to see which teams can make the better adjustments when they play each other for the second time in the season and right now the Gators’ are 2-2 in the second half of season series after beating Butler and Vanderbilt in second meetings while falling to Tennessee and Georgia the second time around. Sweeping LSU would be an impressive feat and would show some excellent coaching and adjustments by Mike White and his staff.
A win against LSU on Wednesday would almost certainly secure a spot for the Gators in the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they play against Kentucky and in the SEC Tournament. Unfortunately, LSU is playing some great basketball and the Gators are coming off their worst loss of the season. Even though it’s a home game for the Gators that hasn’t been the biggest advantage for them with 5 losses in Gainesville this year, something they have to turn around. Senior night festivities will also give this game a different feeling and how they react to all the emotions that will come out during the pre-game recognitions will be something to watch. The Gators need to have a great start to the game and hopefully they will be able to feed off the energy of the ceremonies happening before the tip.
After a brutal home loss to Georgia the Gators took a hit in the metrics but it might not be as bad as you think. They dropped to 35th in the NET which was a 6-spot slide, but 35th is still a good number that is higher than a handful of projected at-large teams. According to Bracket Matrix (a composite of many brackets) the Gators are the highest #11 seed which isn’t a tremendous number but one that shows they are comfortably in the field…for now. Losing out the rest of the season could make things shaky, while a win against LSU would cement their place in the Dance. In a game where the Gators could manage a loss but a win would be tremendous for them, they should provide an outstanding effort and hopefully it’s one that gives them the season sweep over the Tigers.