Lessons From The NBA Bubble

College basketball is only 6 weeks away, so close we can almost taste it.

Though the NCAA and SEC are yet to say exactly what things are going to look like, it’s likely some, if not most, if not all the season is going to be played without fans. Of course, things change quickly these days and that can’t be stated for certain but the expectation from various sources around the country is that games will be played without fans.

For college football, teams went in having no idea what the effect of reduced capacity crowds would be. There was no data or precedence indicating how this atmosphere would change play on the field, and teams were essentially going in blind.

However, that isn’t the case for college basketball. The NBA just completed a four-month season with no fans in attendance and with their completed regular season and an entire playoffs there is a big enough sample size to see the difference between regular hoops and bubble ball.

Of course, the NBA’s bubble on Disney property is going to be different than what Florida is encountering. The Gators will still be playing in the same SEC gyms they’re used to–a major difference from the detached world the NBA was setting up in.

However, even with the differences between the NBA bubble and what the Gators will experience there are likely some elements of basketball without fans that Florida can learn from. In a season unlike anything we have seen in history any advantage a team can gain is a huge one, and looking at what occurred at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports could pay dividends for a college team preparing for their atypical season.

These are some lessons from the NBA bubble and how it could affect Florida’s season.

Shooting in an open gym is completely different than a packed one. Imagine shooting a basketball at your local rec center. Behind the backboard is likely a wall, with maybe some windows or doors in the frame of view.

Now imagine you’re shooting in an SEC gym. Behind the backboard are hundreds of people, most of which are dressed in various colors making for a confusing tapestry, oh, and many of them are moving.

Between the stationary backdrop of an empty gym and a packed gym looking like a laggy zoom background, it’s easy to think that shooting in an empty gym would be easier. In the case of the NBA bubble–this was absolutely true. Teams were shooting 1.7% better from three in the NBA bubble than in the regular part of the season before the shutdown and when you eliminate late shot clock heaves that number goes up to 2.8%. That is a major difference in three-point shooting and it almost certainly is due to the shooter’s backdrop of an empty gym without writhing fans in the background. This sentiment was backed by stars Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, and Duncan Robinson who all spoke about the ease of shooting in an empty gym and with the numbers backing it up, you have to think this will translate to the college game as well.

Let’s say the identical improvement happened in college basketball–1.7%. That number might seem small but how’s this to help put it in perspective. That 1.7% is the difference between Florida, who was 99th in the country last year in three-point percentage, and Montana, who was 38th in the country. Florida, 99th, was 1.7% better than South Alabama who was 188th. So, even a 1.7% increase in three-point percentage in college basketball would be massive.

How does this relate to the Gators?

Stylistically, this definitely works for them. The Gators are a team that wants to get up a lot of three point attempts, an area where they were in the top 100 nationally for the two seasons prior to last where they had less attempts due to throwing the ball inside to Kerry Blackshear Jr. often. If NBA games played with no fans are any indication, threes are going to fall at a higher clip than normal and if that’s the case the Gators will definitely want to get back to 2019 form where they were 66th in the country in three-point attempts.

Defensively, a higher three-point percentage would work for the Gators as well. That’s because the Gators have been a solid three-point defensive team in recent history. The thing about three-point defense is that it’s not all about limiting your opponent’s percentage (though the Gators have done that well), it’s about limiting your opponent’s attempts.

Florida’s defensive philosophy is all about limiting three-point attempts, something that’s talked openly about by the coaching staff and easily noted from the on-the-court product. Their defensive philosophy is based around running shooters off the three-point line and into the paint where help can arrive, and this has been the same ever since White came to Gainesville. For the record, this is why the Gators had so much success defensively when Kevarrius Hayes was there to help on players who were ran off the line, and less success when it was Blackshear who was far, far less of a help defender.

Florida was 116th in the country at limiting three-point attempts last season and they had major success in 2018 (46th), 2017 (28th) and 2016 (70th). It’s clear the Gators were already at their best when they were limiting three-point attempts and that strategy is going to serve them well this season where we can confidently guess that three-point shooting is going to be up.

Another phenomenon from the NBA bubble is that fouls were called at a much higher rate than normal.

For starters, it’s worth discussing whether the use of “called” in that first sentence is the correct word or if it should be “committed.” Of course, from the referee’s perspective they would argue players are fouling more often and that’s why fouls are being called more, but others would argue fouls are being committed at the same rate and the refs are simply calling more.

You can’t say for sure which side of this argument is correct, but most would lean on the side of the refs calling more fouls and not that more fouls are being committed.

Something interesting about foul data over the last few seasons is that fouls committed by teams have been shockingly similar without much variation year to year, with <2% changes.

For that reason, it’s rather odd that fouls went up by 6% in the NBA bubble versus before the restart. Are players playing that much more aggressively, or physically? A bit unlikely. More likely is that referees are now far more “locked in” than normal. They don’t have to deal with crowd noise, some of which is jeers directly shot out in their direction, and much like a three-point shooter they don’t have to deal with visual noise clouding up their vision. Additionally, without a bunch of fans courtside referees could more easily move alongside the baseline and sideline without having to sidestep drinks or cameramen. They could flow alongside the play much easier, getting in the position they need to see the play at the perfect position.

This could pose some issues for the Gators. For starters, they have some players who struggled with committing trouble such as Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh, and Tre Mann. Additionally, the Gators were a team that on the whole committed a lot of fouls, coming 218th in free throw attempts allowed. Remember that style of defense we talked about earlier? It’s going to lead to some fouls being committed as help defenders frantically rotate into the paint to try and stop dribble penetration.

Offensively, the Gators aren’t exactly positioned to take advantage of more fouls being drawn either. Kerry Blackshear Jr. was skilled at drawing fouls, though he was the only one. The rest of the Gators didn’t get to the line much at all, a product of not many of them being talented drivers looking to get to the rim.

If more fouls being called is going to benefit the Gators in any way it’s going to be their depth. Referees blowing their whistle a ton on both sides could make the game a battle of depth, one that the Gators will probably like their chances in. Between Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh, and Colin Castleton at the “5” they have 15 fouls to roll through, and the Gators will also like their depth at the power forward, small forward, and point guard position.

We have no way of knowing exactly what college basketball is going to look like and how the changes are going to affect teams but it’s almost certain that not all teams are going to be affected exactly the same. It would be great to think a huge change like not having fans in the crowd is going to fairly affect each team equally but that is almost certainly not going to be the case. Some styles of play are going to be hurt, and others are going to be helped. By looking at what basketball was like in the NBA without fans we can see where the Gators might be affected positively and where they might be affected negatively.

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.