The Gators desperately need a bounce back game after treacherous 73-62 and 71-68 losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt and will be in tough to do it against one of the best stories in college basketball in the Tennessee Volunteers. Picked in the preseason poll to finish 13th in the SEC coach Rick Barnes and company have been turning heads since late November when they beat Purdue and have become a team firmly planted in the AP Poll’s Top 25. A team without any heralded recruits, eye-popping athleticism, or intimidating size, the Vols have relied on hard work and pinpoint execution to take college basketball by storm. With Florida walking wounded will they be able to escape Knoxville with a victory? Let’s take a look at the scouting report.
Things at the top of the league are getting juicy.
Tennessee currently sits 2 games back of the leading Auburn Tigers. With four games remaining that could look like a big deficit but Auburn just had a season ending injury to an important player in Anfernee McLemore that could be a serious step back. With games against Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina (who just beat them 84-75), this could be a difficult stretch for Auburn and Tennessee wants to pounce. Florida sits one game back of Tennessee at 8-6 but is in the meat grinder of the SEC standings tied with Arkansas, Missouri and Alabama. Mississippi State and Kentucky are also breathing down Florida’s neck at 7-7 making this one of the wildest conference races in college basketball.
After Wednesday’s game Rick Barnes and Mike White might have to sit down for a drink and discuss their teams’ issues with Georgia. Both squads have seriously struggled with Mark Fox’s Bulldogs as the Gators lost both meetings this season 72-60 and 72-69 (OT) and Tennessee is coming off a loss to them 73-62. Both the Gators and Volunteers are higher than the Bulldogs in the standings making their struggles against them rather peculiar. The Gators might have to take a look at some of the film from Georgia’s matchup with the Vols and maybe try to take a page or two out their book to try to steal a win in Knoxville.
With great toughness, team speed, and a dedication to seeing Rick Barnes’ schemes executed, the Volunteers have been suffocating teams defensively all season. Currently 9th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency this is truly one of the nation’s elite defensive teams. Concerned more with recruiting players with defensive instincts than offensive flash the Volunteers don’t have a lot of stars beside their names but they have a squad with great defenders all down the bench. Jordan Bowden, Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Kyle Washington, Jordan Bone… it’s hard to find a poor defensive player in their rotation. Even James Daniel III, an undersized guard who transferred from Howard and was thought to be a great scorer and defensive liability, has become a great ball hawk and contributor to his team’s stopping success. With Tennessee sporting so many good individual defenders the Gators won’t be able to search for one on one matchups they think they can exploit but instead will have to run lengthier offensive sets that get the defense to move their feet so that Florida can look for an opening.
One of the things Tennessee does really well is communicate where their help side defense is coming from so that the primary defender can funnel the ball handler to areas he knows are safe. This usually means down towards the baseline where the offensive player is forced to make a difficult pass or put up a tough shot. Erasing tough shots has been the cherry on top of the Volunteers’ defensive sundae as they are 21st in the country in shot blocking turning away 13.9% of their opposition’s shots. If you do get the ball inside against Tennessee they do have a habit of getting a bit too physical and it leads to them fouling a lot, an area the Gators will have to be ready for and an area they would be well served to try to exploit.
The free throw line is one area teams can get points against them and is possibly the easiest way to score against a team that protects the hoop with shot blocking as I mentioned before but also doesn’t allow opponents to shoot well from the outside. Allowing only 33.9% on spot up shots and 33.2% from behind the arc this is a team that really communicates well to identify shooters and has the speed and basketball IQ to sense when a shot is going up to get there in time to put a hand up. The success of Florida’s 3-point shooting hasn’t been reliant on the quality of their opponents 3-point defense (they have had big shooting nights against excellent 3-point defense teams and terrible shooting nights against bad 3-point defense teams) so they will have to go about their business as usual and hope they can generate and knock down some open looks. Going up against this defense might be a scary proposition but the Gators need to prove themselves here if they want to finish near the top of the SEC.
Known for their defense and physicality this Tennessee team has been extremely underrated nationally for their ability to score. 41st in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency I’m not saying this team is an offensive juggernaut but they are a team so much more well rounded than just a gritty defensive squad and they have shown all season they can really fill it up. Grant Williams is their leading scorer at 15.7 points per game while Admiral Schofield (12.2), Lamonte Turner (10.7), and Jordan Bowden (10.0) provide ample support. When you see the toughness of Tennessee you might expect them to try to pound the ball inside and play bully ball but in reality they are actually a team looking to space the floor and knock down shots and they do that really well. Shooting the three at a 38% clip (52nd in the country) they can punish you from outside with Jordan Bowden (43%), Lamonte Turner (39%), and Admiral Schofield (40%) being their most dangerous marksmen. Eerily similar to Florida, their reliance on the 3-point line makes them struggle to score inside as they are 264th in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage (Florida is 281st). Knowing this I think the Gators don’t need to be as worried about packing the paint and instead need to be worried about defending the 3-point line. In post game interviews after Vanderbilt both coach Mike White and Egor Koulechov both chimed in that the Gators were over helping and then not rotating and if they do those things against Tennessee it will be another recipe for disaster. The Gators need to know clearly who is going to help if there is dribble penetration so that when it happens unnecessary players don’t collapse towards the paint and leave shooters open.
Tennessee will post up a ton and the Gators will need to prepared to guard Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams, and Admiral Schofield on the block as those three are the threats down low. With 15.6% of their possessions ending in post ups Tennessee plays on the block more than any other opponent Florida has played this season. Williams is the biggest threat as he posts up the most and shoots 42.1% while getting fouled 18.2% of the time. As much grief as the Gators have gotten for their post defense it has gotten better and I think Florida will do a decent job guarding the Volunteers down low as long as they can do it without fouling. If the Gators end of allowing some easier twos but don’t allow open threes they will probably be content.
Another unique aspect of the Volunteers offense is that they don’t run a lot of screen and roll but instead set a lot of screens off the ball to try to free up shooters like Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, and Admiral Schofield. I talked earlier about Tennessee’s three point shooter and these plays where they run players off screens will have to be prepared for. This will certainly challenge Florida’s communication defensively as the way to defend these off-ball actions is to talk about who will hedge out and defend the player running off the screen. The Volunteers play good offense but if the Gators play to their defensive potential they’ll be able to stay right with them.
Keys to the Game
Offensive execution down the stretch. This should be a close game that goes down to the wire, as many SEC games have, and the team that wins the last 5 minutes will likely win the game. This is a trend we have seen over and over again in Florida’s games where it seems no matter the lead at the half, the game is going to come down to the wire. We’ve seen Florida use several different offensive strategies in the clutch and nothing has worked with great effectiveness so hopefully they will have found something new to get big buckets late in games.
How do you think the Gators are going to do against Tennessee to kick off their difficult late season stretch? Let me know here with a comment or post on the Gator Country forums.