The Gators’ COVID-19 outbreak following the Christmas break created a death row of sorts for them as they opened SEC play.
Instead of opening up against Ole Miss in a game that they should’ve won to build some momentum, they jumped right into the fire by playing perhaps the three best teams in the league.
Last Wednesday, Florida got steamrolled by defending SEC champion Alabama in the second half and lost by 13 points. On Saturday, they fought hard but came up short in a 12-point loss at Auburn, the highest-ranked team in the conference and a potential national championship contender.
On Wednesday, the Gators will conclude what has to be the toughest three-game stretch to open league play in school history when they host No. 12 LSU. The Tigers (14-1, 2-1 SEC) played a pretty soft nonconference schedule, but they’ve proved their legitimacy by beating Kentucky and Tennessee so far in conference play. Their only loss came at Auburn.
“We’ve had a couple of opportunities that we didn’t quite take advantage of,” UF coach Mike White said. “I feel like we’ve progressed a little bit, developed, have grown a little bit. Again, we’re within striking distance on the road against an Auburn team that’s got a chance to make a big run in March and got another one here [Wednesday] night.”
Defense is the calling card for this LSU squad. They’re giving up just 56.4 points per game, and opponents are shooting just below 35 percent against them (No. 1 in the country), including 26.6 percent from beyond the arc. They’re also forcing 19 turnovers per game.
They’re the best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric.
In short, it’s hard to hold onto the ball against them, and, when you do, it’s hard to get off a good shot attempt.
“They’ve got a really unique philosophy installed this year by that staff,” White said. “It’s terrific, with their man press mixed in there with some zone press, some gambling. Very handsy team, with tips that get them out in transition offense, and they’re really solid, conversely, in the frontcourt. Like, really solid, and the only team on our schedule, other than I think Florida State, that will switch one through five yet more in the gaps.
“Their bigs really, really move. They’re a high-level communication team. That’s what it takes to do that type of stuff, obviously. And then, because of their length and athleticism, they can be cross-matched a lot and get away with it.”
Trying to solve their defense could prove to be an overwhelming task for a UF squad that is offensively challenged to begin with. The Gators (9-5, 0-2) rank just 12th in the league in shooting percentage and 10th in scoring. They’ve only shot better than 34.8 percent from deep in one of their last eight games. They’re averaging more than 16 turnovers per game over their last four contests, and they’ve only committed fewer than 12 turnovers in four games this season.
“They’re very disruptive with their switch-all defense, so we’ve just got to figure out schemes and just protect the ball because they live off live-ball turnovers, and transition offense is their thing,” Florida guard Tyree Appleby said. “So, we just have to limit our turnovers and value the ball, and we’ll be all right.”
LSU hasn’t been great at the other end, though, as they rank 77th in the country in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings. That’s 32 spots behind Florida, and the Gators are hardly an offensive juggernaut. LSU is just seventh in the league in field goal percentage and in three-point percentage.
Individually, the Tigers are powered by their frontcourt tandem of Tari Eason and Darius Days. Eason, a Cincinnati transfer, leads them in scoring (16.2) and is second in rebounding (7.6) despite having not started a game.
He’s also taken 20 more free throw attempts than anyone else on the team and is knocking them down at an impressive 79.4 percent rate.
Days is second in scoring (14.3) and first in rebounding (7.9). He’s a true stretch four, as he’s shooting 35.6 percent from deep. He’s launched 44 more threes than anyone else on the team. UF’s Anthony Duruji and CJ Felder need to do an excellent job of closing out on him when he catches the ball behind the arc.
Starting center Efton Reid is 7-feet tall but isn’t a traditional, back-to-the-basket center. He’s made four of his nine three-point attempts.
Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson leads LSU’s backcourt with 10.9 points, 4.7 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game, but he’s questionable at best to play on Wednesday night after he sprained his right knee against Tennessee on Saturday.
If Pinson can’t go, expect to see even more of Brandon Murray (9.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 34.8 percent from deep) and Eric Gaines (8.5 points, 3.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals). Gaines already plays starters’ minutes off of the bench, as the Tigers are pretty much only three-deep in the backcourt.
While the Tigers have played extremely well this season, this is very much a winnable game for the Gators, even if Pinson plays. As long as they don’t have another one of those 15-plus turnover games, they should have a chance to enter an easier portion of their schedule with momentum.
“I think we got a little bit too comfortable after 6-0, and some other teams came out, everybody wanted to play us, coming in being ranked so high,” Appleby said. “So, I think we just got a little bit relaxed, but, slowly, we’re just regaining our mojo back, just getting our mojo back and finding our identity when we started the season off.
“I will say limiting our turnovers and really just going back to our aggressive defense that we had in the beginning of the year. After a couple of losses, we felt like we lost our identity, but we’re just slowly regaining and getting that confidence back and figuring out who we are again.”