With only one game left in the non-conference schedule, the Gators look to head into Christmas with a victory against the Incarnate Word Cardinals. Currently sitting at 7-4 the Gators hope to head into conference play with an 8-4 record, one that isn’t as glamorous but has provided the strength of schedule numbers that will do big things for the metrics come NCAA Tournament selection time. Tough losses to Florida State, Loyola-Chicago, and Clemson hurt, but the Gators need to put those behind them and take care of business against the teams they absolutely need to beat. Wednesday’s game against James Madison was a game they absolutely needed but things didn’t go smoothly for the whole 40 minutes (admit it, you were scared at times, I read your Gator Country forum posts!). Florida needs to have a strong performance against a low-major Incarnate Word team, one that can give the team confidence and momentum moving into SEC play. Here is what you can expect when the Gators take on the Cardinals and what Florida can do to have a decisive victory to go into Christmas with some swagger.
Season To Date
Only joining Division 1 in 2013, the Cardinals are ineligible for postseason play as part of the NCAA’s Division 2 to Division 1 transition rules (they will become eligible next season). With that being the case, they have elected to play many non-division 1 opponents with the goal of improving their roster’s skills and learning what it feels like to win. Non-division 1 teams have accounted for four of their victories, and they currently have a record of 5-4. Despite being a postseason-ineligible low major they have actually been able to schedule some pretty good games including Houston where they lost 97-58 and a common opponent with the Gators in Gonzaga where they lost 103-68. Their results indicates that the Gators should be heavily favored, but the Gators need to take this game very seriously to both get a win and also develop some confidence and rhythm that they have lacked the last several games.
At the helm for the Cardinals is Ken Burmeister who has been coaching in college basketball for 41 years. That means that he was already into his second year at his first job as an assistant at UT-Arlington when Florida coach Mike White was born. That is a lot of years of experience, and he has done it a lot of stops including UT-Arlington, Iowa, Arizona, UT-San Antonio, DePaul, Loyola-Chicago, Trinity, and now Incarnate Word. At 70 years old he is amongst the oldest coaches in college basketball with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke (70), Cliff Ellis at Coastal Carolina (72), and Jim Boeheim at Syracuse (73). We’ll see how he uses all that coaching experience against the Gators.
After consecutively playing some slower paced in Cincinnati, Clemson, and James Madison, Florida-Incarnate Word will be like pointing the remote control towards the court and putting the game on fast-forward. The Cardinals are the 12th fastest team in college basketball according to adjusted tempo, and their 16 second average possession is among the country’s quickest. They are looking to run at all times and on the break is often where they get their shots. A whopping 21.8% of the Cardinals’ shots come in transition, and they are pretty decent percentage-wise shooting 47.9% and getting fouled 12.6% of the time. Those foul shots are relied upon for their offensive production, as 23.6% of their points come from the charity stripe making them the 19th most reliant team on free throws in the nation. The Gators’ transition defense has been poor this season (as often pointed out by Mike White in press conferences) and they could be exploited on Friday night if they don’t tighten that up. Transition defense can be tough to practice and prepare for, because the thing about transition defense is that two transition defense possessions rarely look the same. Who took the shot and where it was from, where a rebound goes to, and how the floor is spaced all factors in to what the transition defense needs to look like so practicing can be difficult as you need to look at many different situations to be prepared for. Generally speaking, the Gators need to do a better job of having someone pick up the ball carrier early in transition so that the other Gators running back can communicate which offensive players they need to pick up. Any breakdown in this communication can lead to a breakaway layup or a wide-open jump shot, both things that are extremely frustrating. For the Cardinals, the dark side of playing at such ridiculous speeds is that they turn the ball over a ton, on 24.6% of their possessions to be exact (344th in the country at taking care of the ball). Knowing that Incarnate Word turns the ball over almost a quarter of the time the Gators need to be prepared to capitalize on those turnovers by getting odd-man rushes of their own when they force a turnover. Getting some fast break layups off of the Cardinals’ turnovers could go a long way in getting Florida’s offensive confidence up. Another place the Cardinals really thrive is from the 3-point line where they shoot 40.5%, though they don’t actually shoot that many. If these shots are wide open in transition they love to take them, but in the half court they are looking to get into the paint and get fouled. The Gators will have to be disciplined in running with the Cardinals on the break to not give up easy buckets or fouls.
Playing at such a frantic pace, Incarnate Word is prone to lapses defensively and are all together a team that struggles on it’s own side of the floor. Currently 287th in the country in defensive efficiency, they also allow opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 56.5% which is not going to win you a lot of basketball games. Particularly having difficulty playing on-ball defense, opponents constantly drive by Cardinals and get into the paint where Incarnate Word allows 55% from 2-point range. There are so many easy baskets at the hoop available against the Cardinals that teams actually don’t shoot too many 3-pointers against them but when they do they have consistently found the bottom of the net, as the 39.6% from three allowed by the Cardinals is 317th in the nation. Undersized, the Cardinals also really struggle on the glass and opponents get offensive rebounds on 38.3% of their misses making Incarnate Word the 4th worst team in college basketball at defensive rebounding. Though part of this is due to them being undersized as I mentioned they also love to have players leak out after a shot instead of waiting to see if a teammate secures the defensive rebound. The Gators need to punish them for sending out cherry pickers by pounding the glass and getting second chance points.
Best Player for the Cardinals
Though Simi Socks is the leader in points for the Cardinals with 15.4 per game and also has an incredible name, I think Incarnate Word’s best player is 6’5”, 200 pound senior Shawn Johnson. He’s a do-it-all kind of player for the Cardinals, and has a well rounded stat line averaging 11.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Often forced to body up much bigger players, he is the kind of gritty glue guy that makes for a fan favorite.
Keys to the Game
The Gators need to decide what pace they want to play the game at and be committed to dictating it. Do they want to run with Incarnate Word, or do they want to slow the game down and make it a half court game? I suspect coach White will want the Gators playing in transition a lot, a pace the Cardinals will happily partake in, but if there isn’t easy points available the Gators need to slow it down and pick on some matchups. The offense also looked pretty slow to develop against James Madison, so hopefully Florida can be a lot crisper at running their sets.
Playing an undersized team that gives up a lot of offensive rebounds, the Gators need production from Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, and Gorjok Gak. The point totals against James Madison for this trio were 2 for Hayes, 2 for Gak, and 7 from Stone though they were from two made threes and a free throw so nothing was inside. We keep seeing over and over again that the Gators need interior scoring and this could be an opportunity for one or more of those guys to get some easy layups inside off an offensive rebound or a dunk off a drop off pass from a guard. However it happens, these guys need to find a way to score around the rim.
What are you expecting from Incarnate Word? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.