Previewing Florida Basketball’s Season Opener With North Florida

Florida basketball is finally here! On Tuesday the Gators kick off their 2019-20 campaign against the North Florida Ospreys, a team that is extremely familiar to Florida fans. This will be the fourth consecutive year and sixth time in nine seasons the Gators and Ospreys have matched up. The upper hand is held by the Gators in this series as they have went undefeated by the Ospreys have given the Gators some decent games including 2013 when the Gators only won by single digits.

Osprey Experience

When the Gators go to tip off against the Ospreys they are going to see something that is extremely rare in today’s college basketball—5 seniors starting. Nowadays with the amount of players that leave and go play for other schools or head pro early it’s rare to see a team start all seniors but the Ospreys have that luxury. Here are the likely starting 5 of seniors we’ll see on Tuesday. Due to the fact the Gators have seen the Ospreys for multiple consecutive seasons some of these names may be familiar to you.

Ivan Gandia-Rosa (6’1”, 190)
JT Escobar (6’2”, 185)
Garrett Sams (6’7”, 195)
Wajid Aminu (6’7”, 190)
Ezekiel Balogun (6’6”, 235)

One name missing from the list is Noah Horchler, a 6’7” big man who has had success against the Gators including a 16 points, 10 rebound performance against them a year ago. He would have been the sixth senior and arguably the most important player on the roster but he utilized the NCAA’s graduate transfer to leave North Florida. Don’t think that means the Gators get to miss out on him entirely though as he went to Providence so the Gators will still have to contend with the talented low post scorer later in the season.

Which such an experienced group the Ospreys could present a big challenge on night one of the season. They’ve got far more experience than the Gators with significantly more continuity and that could make them much more prepared to start the season than a Gators group that could be still working on gelling. Of course, the other element of playing against North Florida is that you’re always faced with the possibility that they are going to catch fire from three and go on a crazy run.

3-Point Shooting

Letting it fly from behind the arc has been the calling card of coach Matthew Driscoll’s North Florida teams and when you match up with them you know the long ball is coming in droves.

Last season saw the Ospreys shoot the ball good, but not great ranking 197th in 3-point percentage. Even though the percentages aren’t stunning I think this team could be primed to shoot a lot better this season. JT Escobar (38% last year, 43% in 2017) and Garrett Sams (34.1% last year, 39.8% in 2017) had significant shooting dips a year ago but could definitely get back to their true form. Wajid Aminu and Ezekiel Balogun both showed they could hit a few shots as stretch frontcourt plays shooting above 38% from three but they did on a limited number of attempts.

Regardless of how many threes are going to fall for them early you know those shots are going to fly and the Gators will have to be prepared for it. Florida was a tremendous 3-point defense team last year, something that greatly contributed to their overall defense, and they’ll have to have that effort in protecting the arc on full display again. With a longer, more athletic roster that shouldn’t be an issue for the Gators but if they have any rust playing in the first game of the season or miss rotations due to a lack of chemistry the Ospreys can absolutely make them pay.

Where Do The Threes Come From?

Letting upwards up 45% of your shots go from three is a pretty modern way of looking at basketball but they actually get a lot of those attempts with an old-school style of inside-out basketball. For a team that shoots a lot of threes the amount they post up would surprise a lot of people. While they lost their number one post scoring threat in Noah Horchler they still have a solid post player in Wajid Aminu who will look to go one-on-one on the block. He doesn’t have great size at 6’7” and 190 pounds but he’s long and pretty good and drawing fouls which helps him put points on the board. With so many good shooters around him the Gators may be well served to let him go one-on-one and not leave to help, potentially leaving open a shooter, but the Gators doubled down in the post a lot last year and trusted their team speed and defensive IQ with rotations to cover it up. That worked well for them last season and it will likely be their defensive plan for this one.

The Ospreys also look to get a lot of their 3-point looks in transition before a defense has the chance to set up and that is the area of the game where Florida will need to show some connectivity and a level of communication hopefully better than a group of largely new players coming together for their first regular season game. North Florida will look to make things hectic in transition where the Gators might forget about a shooter and they can’t allow that to happen. Communicating who can pick up the ball handler defensively in transition so other Gators can get to shooters will be the key and as long as they are talking they should be in good shape.

Those transition opportunities should happen often as North Florida is one of the fastest teams in the country coming in at 34th in average possession length. They’ll probably know heading into this game they have a much better chance of scoring on Florida’s defense in transition than in the half court when the Gators are set so expect some quick shots from the Ospreys as they try to catch fire.

Florida’s Defensive Keys

Mike White is going to want the Gators to pressure passing lanes to get deflections and steals and they should have a great chance to do this against North Florida. No team had the ball stolen from them as much as the Ospreys did a year ago and knowing that the Gators should see blood in the water. Given the fact that the Gators were 35th in the country in steal percentage last year the Gators should be able to win the matchup in this area and get the chance for a few layups off steals. Florida may choose to be a little bit less aggressive defensively knowing that if they just stay at home and play safe the Ospreys could have a tough time scoring but it’s likely they’ll stick to Coach White’s regular brand of basketball and that means pressure on the perimeter.

It also should be noted that the Ospreys were dismal offensively against press defenses last season only scoring 0.67 points per possession while turning it over 32.5% of the time. Florida pressed a lot more last year than in the seasons prior so it will be interesting to see if they roll it out against North Florida. When they did press it was more of a passive press to take time off the clock than a trapping press but considering that they want to play a lot faster this year they may ratchet up the intensity and pressure things stronger up court.

Rebounding

One of the negative effects of having to play so small the last few seasons is that the Gators have struggled on the glass. Multiple injuries to frontcourt players have left the Gators playing small at the post positions and that meant losing a lot of battles on the boards. Now, with more size in the frontcourt they’ll be looking to dominate the glass and that should start on Tuesday against the Ospreys. A team that values speed over size, North Florida is not big and the loss of tremendous rebounder Noah Horchler is going to really hurt them in that area. Kerry Blackshear Jr., Keyontae Johnson, and Omar Payne (among others) should really control the glass and it will be interesting to see what they do on the offensive boards. Considering how good North Florida is in transition the Gators might be hesitant to send too many bodies to the offensive glass but they also might try to flex their muscle by trying to grab every offensive rebound. Even if Florida doesn’t send too many players to the glass they have guys who should win one-on-one battles for position and the Gators should have plenty of extra offensive possessions.

Storyline To Watch

It will be fascinating to see what lineup combinations Mike White utilizes, especially with the starting group. A lot of people were surprised when Tre Mann got the nod over Scottie Lewis in the exhibition game against Lynn University but Coach White has always shown he’s willing to try out all kinds of different lineups. Will the Gators play small with the undersized Ospreys and play Scottie Lewis at power forward at times or will they go jumbo with Omar Payne and Kerry Blackshear Jr. on the floor at the same time? It may not matter greatly in Tuesday’s game but it will be an interesting look to see what the Gators do once they start to see better competition.

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.

1 COMMENT

  1. Tell Eric his grammar his English grammar needs to be retrained. In the first paragraph above he indicated that the Gators “…had went..” undefeated against UNF. Instead of “went” the correct word if he wants to use one is “gone.” He may may need to retake English 101.
    hspgator