The madness is starting earlier than normal for Florida this season as heading to Nashville for the SEC Tournament the team is far from secured in their postseason fate. Depending on your bracket projection of choice the Gators are either just in, the last team in, or a few teams out, and no matter which one of those are true a loss on Thursday in the first round of the SEC postseason could knock them back and sentence them to the NIT. Some even believe one win won’t be enough to ensure a trip to the Big Dance and they’ll need to knock off LSU (who has the double-bye) in the next round to make it in. Whatever you personally believe, Thursday against Arkansas is the biggest game the Gators have played this season and with each team having 4 days to prepare this should be a well-scouted, well-practiced, and well-rested affair between two gritty teams. Here is what to look for heading into the most nerve-wracking game of the year.
Florida and Arkansas met in Fayetteville back in what feels like an eternity ago in early January and the Gators clung on to a 57-51 win. Perhaps this gives the Gators the upper hand going into a second matchup but this game was two months ago and both teams have a lot different identities now than they did back then at the beginning of SEC play. For example, Keyontae Johnson was still only a lightly used frontcourt piece off the bench, Isaiah Stokes didn’t play at all, and of course Keith Stone was still playing as this was before his season-ending injury.
Season To Date
The Razorbacks are 17-14 this season (an identical record to the Gators) and are 8-10 in the SEC. Their best win, just like the Gators, is a road win against LSU and their worst losses are to Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky at home. Sitting at 64th in the NET rankings they aren’t currently near the NCAA Tournament picture and will playing for their postseason lives in Nashville. They probably see a bit of track to winning the SEC as if they beat the Gators they’ll play an LSU team they already have beaten this season and if they see Kentucky at the end they’ll probably have a bit of confidence as they only lost to the Wildcats by 4 on the road earlier this year. Teams are always desperate at this time of the year and the Gators will be playing a team that is just as hungry for a win as they are.
Big Man On Campus
Leading the Razorbacks is unquestionably 6’11”, 240 pound sophomore Daniel Gafford, a bouncy big man who will be headed to the NBA Draft in the summer where he will hear his name in the first 15 picks. Offensively he leads the way for them with 17 points per game on 66% shooting from the field and he’s a monster on the glass with 8.8 rebounds per game and he anchors a solid defensive scheme with 2.1 blocks. He’s going to be the center of the scouting report for the Gators and how they decide to stop him will be the first thing I look for on Thursday. Florida actually contained him pretty well in the first matchup as he was limited to only 9 points, and though it was on an efficient 3-4 shooting clip I thought they did well to force the ball out of his hands. One thing we might see against Gafford? More Dontay Bassett. He had 23 minutes in the first meeting, his highest minutes total of the season. Something about the matchup with Gafford just seemed to work for him and his body position in taking contact from Gafford was excellent. The Gators are going to need multiple bodies to work against Gafford and one of the reasons they might need Bassett and Isaiah Stokes off the bench is to use some fouls against him. Only shooting 59% from the charity stripe Gafford is susceptible to grab-a-Gafford style defenses that try to make him do his work from the line and not on the post ups he is so good at finishing.
My scouting report on Gafford’s post game?
It’s one of the best I’ve seen this year from anyone in college basketball.
Most post players, even the good ones, are pretty limited in their arsenal of moves. Often times big men are only good coming from one side of the block, (usually the right) and are only good at finishing one way (usually over the left shoulder). Gafford is far more diverse and can score from anywhere down low. He’s shooting 53.1% on the right block and 66% on the left block, so unfortunately there isn’t a side of the floor you particularly want him to set up on. When he gets the ball his dominant right hand is really good (as you’d imagine) shooting 55%, but shockingly he’s even better when he goes to his left hand side shooting 65%. That ability to score over both shoulders makes guarding him a lot more difficult as their isn’t just one hand the primary defender can take away. It also makes things difficult from a double team perspective as it isn’t as obvious where a double team should come from. I think the Gators will be best off by mixing up where they send double teams from, sending second defenders from both one pass away from the nearest wing on some possessions and also from the opposite baseline on others. Giving Gafford different looks will hopefully confuse him and force some errant passes.
Overall, Gafford is shooting 58.9% on post ups which is an incredible number and one that makes him a central focus on the matchup Thursday. Watch for how Mike White dials in a defense for him as that could make or break the game for the Gators.
Arkansas has one of the most feast-or-famine players in college basketball and that’s Mason Jones, a guard who was eating good against the Gators with 30 points in the season’s first matchup. Other than the 30-piece he had against the Gators he has had 30 against Mississippi State, 23 against Georgia, and 22 against LSU and Ole Miss this season. He also had 4 points against Auburn, 5 against Ole Miss, 4 against UT Arlington, and 2 against Austin Peay. Jones is a player that really swings things for the Razorbacks and whether or not he’s feeling it at the SEC Tournament could decide if Arkansas advances or not. He does well finding open space when Daniel Gafford gets the ball and gets doubled and is also really good at attacking closeouts, something he did extremely well against the Gators to get his 30 points. In a one-and-done setting these heat checks players can really change the game and Mason Jones is the number one candidate to be a game shifter.
Other Key Players
Point guard Jalen Harris is a really interesting player who is a really good distributor (5.5 assists per game) but one that isn’t a good scorer and is a brick layer from three shooting 12.3% (yikes). He can really thread passes to Daniel Gafford when they run pick and rolls together and the Gators will have to figure out how they want to defend those actions. Knowing Harris isn’t a scorer I think they need to go underneath of screens and clog up the lane to deter any passes to Gafford. They can live with any shots Harris wants to take and I would invite him to pull any threes he feels inclined to take.
Another player to watch is Isaiah Joe who is lights-out three point shooter. He’s made 106 threes already this season, a number that can be put in perspective by the fact Noah Locke leads the Gators with 76 hits from deep this year. At 6’5” Joe has the length to get his shot off against pretty much anyone the Gators will be closing out to him with and though he doesn’t have a look of finishing ability off the dribble when he drives the 42.9% 3-point stroke on tons of volume does just fine for him offensively. He’s far and away the best shooter on the Razorbacks and when the time comes to send a double team to Daniel Gafford the Gators will need to be aware of where Joe goes on the floor, and they might even consider never helping off of him.
Perhaps the biggest way Arkansas can hurt you offensively is transition where they’re one of the best teams in the country. Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, and Desi Stills are all excellent at finding lanes in transition or hanging back to spot up for three and though Jalen Harris isn’t a scorer in the half court he is really good at slithering into the paint off fast breaks and getting layups before the defense is set. Looking to score in transition gives Arkansas a chance to generate offense without needing Gafford and the Gators are going to need to be disciplined in running back on defense, identifying whose covering who, and getting to shooters. Arkansas loves playing fast and if the Gators can take away transition and make this a half court game where the can focus their defense on taking away Gafford it will definitely benefit them over the Razorbacks.
Pressuring The Perimeter
I am a big fan of the way Arkansas coach Mike Anderson coaches defense and he has the perfect personnel to run his system this year. The Razorbacks really like to deny ball reversal by having their perimeter players that aren’t covering a player with the ball still run out towards their check and guarding them to make them unavailable for a pass. The benefit of that style of defense is that it makes it tough for opponents to run their offense, with the penalty being that they aren’t always in the best position to play help defense if the player with the basketball beats his man with the dribble. Luckily for the Razorbacks they have Daniel Gafford back there to protect the rim if there is any penetration. Gafford allows them to crank up pressure on the perimeter and dare teams to beat them off the dribble and that does not benefit a Florida team that doesn’t have a lot of elite drivers. Arkansas’ pressure could really give the Gators issues but they also could really exploit it. Mike White’s Princeton offense involves lots of back cuts and those should be there against a high-pressure defense and in the scouting report I hope the Gators look to exploit that. The Gators need to look to be cutters when they do get dribble penetration as the spaced-out defense of Arkansas will still take away some shooters in a help situation but should give up easy cuts if the Gators look for layups off the pass. Florida hasn’t been great against high-octane defensive teams this year but with a few days to prepare they will hopefully be able to score on Thursday.
Arkansas is a really good team that has played a lot of outstanding teams tough this year. They have great team size and a distinct style of play that they are really committed to. I don’t love this matchup for the Gators and with their backs against the wall they’ll need to come up with a tremendous effort to survive and advance in the SEC Tournament. If Florida can defend in transition and be disciplined in their defensive rotations when they double on Gafford they should be able to keep the ball out of their hoop and if they can space the floor properly on offense they should be able to get open shots out of the Princeton looks. If they can execute those schemes we could see the Gators playing LSU for a third time in the next round.