Matchup With Auburn A Chance For Gators To Get Big Win

Florida is in need of some big-time resume wins and they’ll have to opportunity to nab one on Saturday when they take on Auburn at home (1:30, CBS).

Entering this week undefeated and with a #4 ranking in the AP Poll this was looking like a whale of an opponent for the Gators but the Tigers laid an egg on Wednesday, losing 83-64 to Alabama. Obviously they are still going to be ranked #4 going into Gainesville but they probably aren’t as good as that ranking would suggest.

If the Gators were to take a W here it would unquestionably their biggest win of the season and coming off an encouraging win against Ole Miss this would be a great way for them to continue the momentum. Here is everything you need to know looking towards Saturday’s game.

Tigers’ Season To Date

Auburn is 15-1 with their lone loss coming against Alabama as previously mentioned. Before that loss they were one of two undefeated teams in college hoops (San Diego State being the other one) and they were getting a lot of talk regarding them having the potential to make another Final Four run.

Aiding their 15-0 start to the season was a schedule that wasn’t particularly strong ranked 166th in difficulty. Their best opponent was NC State, but they also got good wins against Furman, Davidson, and Richmond.

One thing that’s interesting about Auburn’s schedule is that according to predictive metrics like KenPom, Haslametrics, and Sagarin, the Gators will be the best team Auburn has seen so far this season. They have rattled off a lot of wins but haven’t exactly faced world beaters so Florida is actually going to be quite the test for them.

To compare Auburn’s schedule to Florida’s, the Gators’ difficulty was ranked 47th so Florida is definitely more accustomed to tough games than Auburn.

Playing With Pace

What made Auburn so good a year ago on their way to a Final Four was their two speedy guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, both who are now gone due to graduation and the NBA. Those two were the fastest backcourt in college basketball and it was nearly impossible for any team to defend the duo.

Even though both of them are gone the Tigers have stuck with a hyper-speed offense. They currently rank 46th in possession length and are one of the fastest high major teams and in a bunch of their wins they simply ran their opponents out of the gym.

Bryce Brown and Jared Harper might be gone but they’ve been replaced by some more than capable guards in J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty. Some people could be surprised by the emergence of these two players but both are seniors who excelled in secondary roles behind Brown and Harper so it makes sense that they were ready to step in and command the show.

Samir Doughty has been the main finisher at 15.1 points per game. What makes him special as a player is that he can play with great speed, the speed you were used to seeing from Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, but unlike Brown and Harper who were under 6’1” Doughty is 6’4”. At his size his speed is surprising and it makes him exceedingly difficult to guard. He has feasted inside against smaller guards and if an opposing coach puts a bigger defender on him then he can blow by them on the perimeter.

J’Von McCormick is more of a facilitator with 5 assists per game in addition to his 11.2 points. Playing a traditional point guard style he’ll make safe plays and make smart plays with the basketball and on the other end he’ll really pressure the ball and set the tone defensively.

Newcomer To Watch

One of the best and most underrated freshmen in college basketball this year is Isaac Okoro, a 6’6” wing who has challenged Scottie Lewis for the title of best defender in the 2019 class. Everyone knew he was going to come into college and be a defensive monster and he’s made good on the expectations. He has extremely long arms at 6’6” and he knows how to use them, steering ballhandlers when he’s at the point of attack or flying into passing lanes away from the ball to get steals.

While he came into college with great defensive pedigree there were some questions about his offense but he’s actually been effective on that end in a limited role. He is second on the Tigers in scoring at 13.2 points per game despite not having many plays ran for him and he’s doing it on 64.5% shooting from 2-point range, mostly on plays where he elevates over shot blockers to get easy layups.

Scottie Lewis and Isaac Okoro will be a great matchup between two players that play a similar role defensively and it will be perhaps the most intriguing matchup to keep an eye on.

94 Feet Of Chaos

Last year Auburn was a team that excelled when games got frantic. If things got crazy and the game turned into two teams exchanging chaotic fast breaks they could always out-execute their opponents and they didn’t like games to be played at a more traditional half court style.

This year they’re embracing the chaos even more by playing a lot more full court pressing defense. On 21% of their defensive possessions they’ve played a full court press trying to generate turnovers and generally make their opponent feel uncomfortable.

Part of the reason they can do this and be so effective is that they have an excellent group of players for this style. J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty can pressure ball handlers and force tough passes over the top and when players do that Isaac Okoro and Danjel Purifoy are athletic and long enough to go steal the ball. They can also be extremely aggressive as they know they have Anfernee McLemore or Austin Wiley behind them, both who are excellent shot blockers prepared to mop up any mistakes by protecting the rim.

Florida hasn’t looked great when pressed this year. Andrew Nembhard has looked comfortable against the pressure but Scottie Lewis and Noah Locke have had some difficult moments dealing with traps and making the proper decisions. Considering Florida doesn’t have a lot of ball handlers in their regular rotation and they haven’t been great against presses it’s likely Auburn will use pressure and the Gators will need to be prepared for it if they want to win.

Matchup Outlook

The way Alabama beat Auburn should give the Gators some insight into how they can win this game. First of all, Alabama forced 21 turnovers, a ridiculously high number but one that is somewhat reasonable considering how speedy Auburn wants to play. Florida has had some games where they have forced a lot of turnovers and they’ll likely have to force a great number of them against Auburn if they want to win.

There are a lot of ways this year’s Auburn team is similar to last year’s team but there is one glaring difference—3-point shooting. Last year the Tigers were one of the best shooting teams in the country at 38.1% (21st nationally) but considering how much volume they had (8th in attempts) you could easily argue they were the best 3-point shooting team in the country.

That definitely hasn’t been the case this year.

They’re currently shooting 31.6% from the land beyond, good for 240th nationally and a number that is extremely unlike what they were accustomed to a year ago. The adjustments they’ve made due to their lack of shooting is an offense that gets the ball going towards the rim and they’ve done it well. They’re up to 10th in the country in 2-point percentage at 55.8% and they’ve really pressured defenses with their ability to score in the paint.

Defensively the Gators will have to be ready to defend the paint at all costs knowing that’s where Auburn wants to live. Florida has done a good job of protecting the paint this season but this could be their biggest challenge yet.

On offense they’ll need to be prepared for Auburn’s press defense and their general perimeter pressure in the half court. The players who will really need to step up are Florida’s secondary ball handlers like Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, and Ques Glover. Auburn is going to try to force the ball out of Nembhard’s hands and make someone else make the plays and Florida’s other perimeter players will need to be ready to face the press.

Auburn’s loss to Alabama showed they definitely can be beat and Florida needs to treat this like the big game that it is. A win here would change the trajectory of Florida’s season and they have a good shot at doing it on their home floor.

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.