With March Madness upon us the Gators are looking to make noise and advance deeper in the tournament than their 6 seed would suggest. Every year there are surprise teams to go on runs and once the ball is tipped on Thursday it often seems like seeds no longer matter. In a year where it seems there is more parity than ever it feels like there is no way the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four will just be chock-full of #1, #2, and #3 seeds but instead will have teams from the tier below and perhaps even a few Cinderellas to capture America’s heart. The Gators are a team that has polarized fans, media, and bracketologists all season with their soaring heights and cavernous lows and how far they make it in the tournament has been a major water cooler discussion and a divisive argument between friends filling out brackets. What would the Gators need to do to match last year’s Elite Eight run or even make it to the Final Four? With nearly a week between the Gators’ loss to Arkansas ending their SEC Tournament and their first game in the NCAA Tournament the team has some time to gather themselves and be prepared for the rigors of the world’s most popular knockout competition. We’ve all had a laundry list of tasks to before heading out to chill with the buddies or a “Honey Do” list left by a significant other, and I think the Gators could use one. Here is a checklist of things I think the Gators have to do entering the Big Dance to be ready for a deep run.
Establish A Rotation
Moving pieces around constantly based on in-game and practice successes the Gators have utilized a multitude of starting lineups this season that has seen nearly everyone on the roster start at some point. I like how Coach White has used the starting lineup and increased minutes to reward players for excellence (or punish others for lack of execution) but I personally believe that the lack of continuity in a starting lineup and substitution pattern has contributed to some of the inconsistencies the Gators have shown this season, both game to game and even half to half. Utilizing different starting lineups and different substitution patterns means that players often are playing with different configurations of personnel and weren’t able to establish chemistry or rhythm. Often times the Gators have had dry offensive stretches when an unfamiliar five was on the floor together and defensive breakdowns occurred when a player didn’t know how others on the floor would react to a particular action by the offense. I fully agree with Mike White changing things up earlier in the regular season as a reward system, to give players opportunity, and to tinker to find what works, but I think late in the season and in tournament settings you need to have an established starting five and an established rotation so that players know what role they play, where and when they’ll be playing, and who they’ll be playing with.
Prepare For Point Guards
The East region the Gators are a part of boasts some of the best point guards in the country. Jalen Brunson at Villanova, Collin Sexton at Alabama, Justin Robinson at Virginia Tech, Jevon Carter at West Virginia, and most instantly relevant to the Gators, Jaylen Adams at St. Bonaventure and Aaron Holiday at UCLA. If the Gators are going to make it out of this region they are going to have to be prepared to defend some wicked guard play, something they have done with mixed levels of success this season. Speedy guards like Aaron Holiday and Jaylen Adams haven’t actually given the Gators as much trouble this season as the fleet-footed Chris Chiozza has been able to stay in front of them, but it’s the tougher, more muscular guards with the ability to rumble their way to the hoop that have been the issue (for example, Jaylen Barford from Arkansas, also in the region). How can the Gators counteract more physical, barreling guards that want to use their size on Chiozza? Cheese needs to pick up these guards as soon as they pass half, forcing them to run offense higher. If they can get the ball right at the three-point line, it’s only a few dribbles and a bump to Chiozza’s chest and they’ve got a layup at the hoop. Picking them up at the three-point line allows them to be more “straight line” drivers. If Chiozza can pick them up further out then they have to string together more dribble combinations together to beat him, Chiozza’s quick feet take over and he’ll cut off that penetration. When the guy you’re covering is bigger and stronger than you then you have to force him to beat you east-west, you can’t let him drive in a straight line or he’ll beat you more often than not. If Chiozza does pick up guards further out then everyone else on the floor has to be prepared because if he does get beat, help needs to be there in a way that isn’t as easy as if Chiozza was picking up closer to the three-point line. It may be difficult, but it may be what the Gators need to do against physical guards.
Watch Some Film On Big Men
We know some bigs have given the Gators problems this season and in their region they could see some fantastic ones in UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Purdue’s 7’2” Isaac Haas. Though dominating post players have caused issues for the Gators I think it is a problem that has been overstated. The Gators are in the 67th percentile nationally when it comes to guarding post ups, suggesting they are not only good at guarding those sets but in terms of percentile are better at it than guarding spot up shots (51st percentile), isolation (52nd percentile), and perhaps most surprisingly, transition (51st percentile). Teams shoot 45% on post ups against them but also turn the ball over a shocking 20.1% of the time. Though those numbers are great, they don’t account for all the problems post players cause when they demand a double team and kick the ball out to an open shooter who either hits a shot or attacks a closeout and gets into the paint. The best way to improve team defense on great bigs is to watch film because that overhead look makes it very apparent where help defense needs to come from when a double is required. It’s one thing to talk about it on the court but when a player can see himself on film and see things as a whole from a different angle it really changes the way they learn. I expect the Gators will be ready for any big-time posts they see.
Take Time To Heal, But…
…Don’t get rusty and sluggish. With their double-bye in the SEC Tournament followed by their early exit by the time Thursday comes around they will have played one game in twelve days. That’s wonderful for guys like Gorjok Gak and Dontay Bassett recovering from injuries and guys like Chris Chiozza, Egor Koulechov, and KeVaughn Allen who play a ton of minutes and need rest, but that is a lot of time off and you don’t want to come off rusty and not ready to play. If the Gators are rusty the problem could be compounded due to the fact they are playing the winner of St. Bonaventure and UCLA in a play-in game, meaning they’ll play a team who already has their feet wet in the NCAA Tournament.
Think what I just said doesn’t actually matter? Every year since the Tournament added in a play-in game, one of the 11 seeds who won the play-in have went on to win their round of 64 game as the lower seed. It seems like the problem of rust is real. Hopefully the team does some activities to simulate game action without going hard enough to actually tire out any legs.
Let’s not have the Gators be the next victim.
Practice Offense Against Different Defenses
Playing in the NCAA Tournament means you’re going to play against a handful of teams you wouldn’t normally see and that means you are going to see a variety of defenses you might not normally see. You could see pack line man defense where they deny anything in the paint, or deny man defense where they pressure out and make passes on the perimeter hard. You might see a passive 2-3 zone where you can pass it over the top, or a 1-3-1 zone that traps you every spot on the floor. Maybe you see West Virginia’s patented press defense. Whatever the Gators see, they’ll have to be ready for it on short notice. Though the zone offense has looked questionable at times the Gators statistically score more against zones (about 0.1 points per possession better which does add up over the course of a game), but they could use a refresher on how to position and move the ball against those defenses. Deny man defense has been a problem for the Gators at times (an example is Missouri, who the Gators barely escaped with a win against) as it makes Florida’s wings less a part of the offense and freezing out Jalen Hudson is certainly not what the Gators want. Then, if you remember the Loyola-Chicago loss, you’ll remember a team that played pack line man defense and forced the Gators to shoot semi-contested jump shots that didn’t fall.
I didn’t list all those to make you concerned, as the Gators have had success against all kinds of elite defenses this year (look to wins against Cincinnati, Texas A&M, and Alabama) but only to demonstrate all the different types of defenses you see in college basketball and how you need to be prepared. Hopefully they have used their time off to go over some potential offenses to counteract what other team will try to do.
Once the ball is tipped Thursday it’s going to come down to the will, determination, and execution of the players on the floor but I do think the time leading up to the tournament is valuable and preparation done or not done can win or lose you a game. I’m sure the coaching staff has been attacking the time of preparation and will have the Gators ready to roll in Dallas.
What do you think the Gators need to do in preparation for the NCAA Tournament? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.