How The Gators Stand Going Into Bout With #1 Baylor

Number one is coming into town.

These are the moments you love as a fan and the type of games that players love to play in. The Gators started the season on the national radar but have since fallen off and a great way to re-establish yourself as one of the contenders in college basketball is to beat number one.

Baylor has had an excellent start to the season climbing all the way up to the first spot in the AP Poll using a 6-0 start in conference play, including a big win over Big 12 mainstay Kansas, to leapfrog Gonzaga for the top spot. The Big 12-SEC Challenge is what brings the Bears to Gainesville and with the 8 o’clock local tip Saturday this game at the end of the day’s schedule could very well decide which league wins the competition.

While a win over Baylor wouldn’t do anything for Florida’s SEC standings which has to be a focus right now it’s still an opportunity for a major resume boost. Most teams in the country would do anything for a chance to play number one and showcase who they are, and the Gators have been gifted that opportunity. Before the season you knew this was going to be a good game and that Baylor would be good but you never would have thought they’d be number one so this is an expected opportunity for the Gators.

A win would really shift national perception of the team and give them great momentum as they search for an SEC banner so you know they’ll be ready to play. Here is everything you need to know before Saturday’s contest.

How You Get To Number One

Baylor didn’t start at the top of the AP Poll, they needed to earn every spot as they entered the top-25 and eventually summitted the peak.

Currently they hold wins over Butler, Arizona, and Villanova which is a resume that will put any team on the map. The Big 12 is a strong conference and Baylor has gone through it unscathed up until this point and it’s not like they have had an easy start to the schedule. They’ve beaten Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma who all profiled well entering the season and most notably the Bears had a performance that outlined why they deserve to be the best team in the country.

Baylor entered Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas’ home arena and notorious one of the toughest places to play in the country and hammered the home Jayhawks 67-55. Very few teams have been able to do that historically and in doing so Baylor showed they were for real.

Their one loss came to Washington early in the season on a neutral floor. Washington plays a unique defensive style rolling out a 2-3 zone for 40 minutes and in the second game of the season Baylor just wasn’t ready for it yet. If that game was played later in the season there is a great chance that the Bears come out victorious and even though it’s a loss on their schedule it’s not a damaging one and they have shown just how good they are since. This was a tough earned number one spot in the poll and it shows how quality of a squad this is.

Defensive Dominance

If you were to point to one area of Baylor’s game that leads the way it’s their defense. Ranked 4th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency they have been overwhelming teams with their defense and stifling any attack they have faced. In any way you want to evaluate defense they have been spectacular. It all starts with their ability to protect the paint. When you look at their roster they are actually a bit undersized on the perimeter. At their 1, 2, and 3 spots they cycle through four players in Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Jared Butler, and Devonte Bandoo who are all between 6’1” and 6’3” and all weigh between 185 and 195 pounds. In a world of college basketball where most dominant defensive teams are full of 6’6” wings Baylor’s small perimeter is an anomaly but they are still able to protect the paint by playing great perimeter defense.

Davion Mitchell is particularly impressive as an individual defender and he hardly gives up any dribble penetration. Coach Scott Drew will use him a couple of different ways, either locking him on one single player (almost always the other team’s best player) or using constant switches to keep him at the point guard spot where he will always pester and deny any offense their opponents try to run. The matchup with Mitchell and Andrew Nembhard will be one to watch as all Florida’s offense flows through Nembhard and Mitchell will be doing everything is his power to deny that.

If the Gators do get through Baylor’s perimeter players they’ll be met with a great shot blocker in Freddie Gillespie. Currently 39th nationally in block rate he’s one of the best rim protectors in the country and his presence in the paint allows his smaller teammates to really get up in the grills of their opposing player. If they give up dribble penetration they know they have Gillespie to clean things up and he is one of the anchors of the defense.

Transition hasn’t been a big part of Florida’s offense this year but they’ve been improving in that area and trying to get fast breaks against Baylor would be wise. When the game slows and the Bears are able to set their defense there hasn’t been many teams able to score on them and while Florida’s half-court offense has improved greatly they still will be in tough against this team. Any early offense the Gators can get before Baylor gets comfortable in their own end would be huge and if they can soften the defense with some early transition buckets it would really help them in the long term.

Player To Watch

Scott Drew’s programs are usually team-oriented clubs where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts but this year he has an elite individual scorer who can break the mold and go get his team a bucket outside of their normal offensive system.

Sophomore Jared Butler has been outstanding offensively this year putting up 16.1 points per game while adding 3.1 assists and shooting 38% from three and he is absolutely the player the Gators need to focus on stopping. Extremely shifty with the basketball he uses changes of pace better than pretty much anyone in the country to get his way to the hoop and if defenders sag off to try to deter the drive he’s more than comfortable stopping and pulling up where he is one of the best shooters in the country.

Baylor shares the ball extremely well and makes defenses guard multiple actions but if it gets to the end of a shot clock or the end of the game it’s going to be Jared Butler to watch out for.

Unstoppable Force Versus Immovable Object

Keyontae Johnson and Baylor’s Mark Vital are two extremely similar players. Both are 6’5”, both are 230 pounds. Both play undersized power forward roles, and both are spectacular rebounders despite not being the tallest players on the floor.

Both are probably the strongest players on their team, and potentially the strongest players in their conference.

This is a matchup that has been a treat to look forward to for a long time and while it won’t get the same shine as the matchup in the backcourts this will still be an amazing battle to watch. These two players look similar from a physique standpoint and they play similarly, though Johnson is definitely more athletic and Vital has the low post scoring edge.

These are two of the strongest players in college basketball and seeing what happens when they try to box each other out for a rebound will be must-see TV.

Matchup Outlook

Florida has had trouble this year against teams that have physically overwhelmed their perimeter players. Baylor’s guards and wings are great players but they’re not physically overwhelming, they’re skill guys. This has to make Florida feel better about their ability to guard them. The Bears aren’t going to just be physical straight-line drivers like LSU and they’re not going to trap or pressure defensively like Florida State and that’s what makes them different from some of the other good teams Florida has faced.

That doesn’t mean Baylor is going to be easy to play against but it’s at least good for the team to enter the game knowing they aren’t going to be pushed around. What’s also encouraging is that Florida is playing their best offensive basketball of the season right now. They’ve had good performances in every one of their SEC basketball games and just had a really great night scoring against LSU (it was their defense that lost them that one) and they’ve got to feel they have a good chance of scoring on Baylor even though the Bears are so good defensively.

From a preparation standpoint Florida will need to be ready for the switching defense Baylor uses a lot. When defenses switch it can render a lot of offensive sets useless so the Gators will need to know which plays work against switching defenses and which ones need to be abandoned.

If the Gators can continue to score like they have as of late and can eliminate some of the defensive lapses they had against LSU they will have a great chance at knocking off a number one team.

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.