After dropping their SEC opener to Alabama the 9-4 Gators don’t get anything easier as they’ll play the 13-1 Auburn Tigers, a team many project to win the SEC.
Adding to Florida’s difficulties will be the fact this game will be played in Auburn and with the Tigers riding a 10-game winning streak the fans should be full of energy.
The early season has gone really well for Auburn who has accumulated an impressive 13-1 record despite having the 39th most difficult schedule in the country according to KenPom. Their only loss of the season came in the Bahamas to UConn in double overtime, meaning they were a bounce here or there away from a 14-0 record with a whole lot of quality wins. On their resume are wins over Loyola Chicago, Syracuse, Yale, UCF, Nebraska, Saint Louis, and Murray State in the non-conference, all quality opponents, and their SEC season is off to an easy 2-0 start following a pair of 15-point dismantlings of South Carolina and a very good LSU team. Everything about Auburn’s resume says they’re legit, so this will be no easy task for the Gators.
Auburn is currently 6th in the NET rankings, meaning if the Gators were to take this game on the road they’d have a crown jewel on their resume, something they could very much use. Plus, with how hard Auburn’s non-conference schedule was and the fact that the SEC is so good, the Tigers are very unlikely to drop much in the NET and therefore this would always stand as a quality win if the Gators were able to get it.
One of the engines behind Auburn’s success is a frontcourt that you could argue is the best in the country. This starts with Jabari Smith, a freshman who entered the season as a projected NBA Lottery pick but has since played so well that he’s in contention for the number one pick. At 6’10” and 220 pounds he’s the perfect size for modern basketball and with most of his minutes played at power forward he’s a mismatch nightmare for defenses to handle. His biggest tool offensively? The three-point shot. Smith is shooting 43% from three on over five attempts per game with a stroke that’s as pure as you’ll see in college basketball. Between his athleticism and skill with the dribble at 6’10” and his ability to stroke it from deep there isn’t much defenses can do to handle him and that makes him an important figure in Saturday night’s game. A strength of Florida’s defense has been their ability to run shooters off the three-point line and with Smith that’s probably a wise strategy. He’s an elite level shooter, and while he’s talented off the bounce as well–he wouldn’t be considered elite in that area. Not yet a fantastic playmaker or passer, if the Gators keep him from shooting long balls and instead get him on the move where he has to make decisions with the ball, they could have success. That’s a big “could,” however.
Joining Smith in what is one of the best frontcourts in the country is North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler who has been a revelation at Auburn after occasionally struggling to get off the bench as a Tar Heel. For starters, Kessler is a massive human being. Auburn lists him at 7’1” and 245 pounds, but something about his frame makes him look even more imposing–if that’s even possible. Offensively Kessler isn’t the most talented big man but he’s got a good set of hands around the rim and he has a massive body to carve out space, so when he gets the ball in deep he’s more than likely to finish. Shooting 70% from the field this year, Kessler is an efficient bucket waiting to happen on the low block.
While he is impactful offensively due to his size, it’s his defense that truly makes a difference in Auburn’s games.
Averaging 4.2 blocks per game, Kessler is one of the premier shot blockers in the country and he’ll make everything around the rim difficult for the Gators. Even more impressive than his block averages is his block rate of 20.3%, meaning when he’s on the floor he blocks one of every five field goal attempts from his opponents.
Florida hasn’t done particularly well at getting to the rim or finishing with their guards this year and Kessler will make that even more difficult, but the biggest problem for Florida could come with how he may be able to neutralize Colin Castleton. Getting Castleton deep post position for finishes around the rim has been some of Florida’s best offense this year and with 7’1” Kessler patrolling, those shots won’t be anywhere near as available as they have been in any other matchup Florida has played.
When Auburn’s frontcourt isn’t causing havoc, Auburn is propelled by guards Wendell Green and KD Johnson, the exact kind of guards that head coach Bruce Pearl somehow continues to keep churning out. They’re undersized at 5’11” and 6’0” but can get anywhere they want on the court, and this brand of small, shifty guard has given the Gators trouble for years.
They also just got some reinforcements back as wing Allen Flanigan is back from an achilles injury. He was a 14 point per game scorer last year and was expected to be one of their best players this year before injuring his achilles in the offseason. Flanigan was able to get two games in before missing Auburn’s most recent game due to “medical reason” which some media members interpreted as health and safety protocols. I’m told he should play Saturday against the Gators, which would give the Tigers yet another weapon.
Not only is Auburn loaded with talent, but they play a beautiful brand of offensive basketball that utilizes offball movement and cuts that confuse and frustrate defenses. The staple of their offense is the “flex” cut, a screen on the baseline that frees up a cutter right around the rim so when he catches the ball it’s an easy finish. Florida’s off ball defenders will have to constantly stay engaged and if they get caught staring at the basketball they could find themselves getting backscreens with their check free running to the rim for a layup. The screens are often set by Jabari Smith, who after setting the screen will pop out to the three-point line looking for a catch and shoot opportunity, or by Walker Kessler who will screen and then open up to the basketball for the chance at a slip towards the rim.
For Florida, their pathway to victory may have to come on the defensive end as they try to slow down a number of offensive weapons. This team has constantly said they pride themselves on the defensive end and the results haven’t yet been there this season so if they want to establish their defensive identity this could be the game. It will be a tough road environment against a team with a couple of NBA players so it will be quite the challenge for the Gators, but if they want to make a statement about turning their season around, this could definitely be the game.
This game takes place January 8th at 8 PM ET and will be broadcast on ESPN 2.