On to the next one. It felt great to take care of business against the #11 seed St. Bonaventure Bonnies but the Gators won’t have much time to celebrate as they have to quickly turn around and set their sights on their next opponent, the #3 seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders. The sentence “#3 seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders” would have surprised just about anyone if you told them that in October as no one expected them to succeed at this level but the normally meddling members of the Big 12 conference have found themselves amongst college basketball’s elite. Known for their toughness this game is sure to be a battle and the team that gets the last stop of the game might very well be the one that comes out victorious. Let’s take a look at what the Gators can expect from their round of 32 foe and what they can do to get a victory.
Opening Round Takeaways
Texas Tech took on Stephen F. Austin and had their hands full with the #14 seeded winner of the Southland Conference who played this game as if it were an evenly seeded #8 versus #9 game. The Red Raiders were ultimately able to pull away for a 70-60 victory but their performance definitely left some room for doubt in terms of a possible upset. Stephen F. Austin plays a frantic trapping style of zone defense that could leave a team physically and mentally drained and we’ll have to see if there will be any carryover from that.
Gator fans will recognize Brandone Francis (listed as Brandon Francis-Ramirez while at Florida) on the wing. A former top-40 recruit for Billy Donovan’s Gators in 2014 he never got his feet under him in Gainesville and ultimately utilized the transfer rule to find a home in Lubbock, Texas. I don’t add this tidbit only as a nod to his Gator ties, but to point out that he is a perfect example of a player that coach Chris Beard has targeted since taking the program’s lead position. Texas Tech is full of experienced players, a few of which are transfers, and all of which are players who feel like they were under-recruited or under-utilized at a past program and they channel it into a drive to win that has found the Red Raiders one of the best stories in college basketball this season. Knowing how these players feel like they have a chip on their shoulder it certainly explains how they can play so tough for so long.
With 10 players averaging over 12 minutes per game Texas Tech is able to keep a high level of intensity on the floor at all times knowing they have plenty of able bodied reserves to sub in when a player gets fatigued. This also gives them the ability to play with incredible physicality, knowing that if a player were to get in early foul trouble that there is a worthy sub ready to take his place. They give their bench the 30th most minutes in college hoops (and 4th most amongst power conference schools) which further evidenced their trust in secondary players. Florida, on the other hand, only has 6 players that average over 12 minutes per game and relies a lot more on front-end production from their starters. We saw some great minutes from the bench against St. Bonaventure and they’ll need that same effort from the second unit in order to get a win.
Orchestrating everything offensively for the Red Raiders is senior point guard Keenan Evans who averages 17.5 points, 3.2 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game. Not a sharpshooter from three at 31.4% he mostly does his work by getting into the lane with a quick step and shifty crossover where he can then finish at the rim with a crafty layup. Chris Chiozza will be huge in the defensive game plan as Mike White will implore him to keep Evans out of the lane at all costs. Definitely two of the fastest guards in college basketball, I’d love to see them in a race and we might just see that up and down the floor a few times. Another storyline in the matchup is the fact that both Chiozza and Evans were named finalists for the Bob Cousy award (an honor bestowed upon the best point guard in college basketball) and I’m sure they’d both like to outplay the other and establish themselves as one of the nation’s best. Keep an eye on the two senior point guards as they battle for supremacy on the floor.
Offense From Defense
Texas Tech isn’t going to blow you away with their offensive execution as they are a good, but not great 46th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Knowing they don’t execute exceptionally with half court offense they work hard to create turnovers and go the other way getting layups and trail threes on the fast break. Texas Tech really plays passing lanes and pressures ball handlers and it has lead to them being the 16th best team in the country in turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on a merciless 21.9% of their opponent’s possessions. When they get those steals they are great at running lanes in transition forcing the defense to make tough decisions on who to cover. After the defense picks their poison, the ball handler hits the open man for either a dunk or an open jumper. If Florida can find a way to be efficient offensively then Texas Tech could really struggle to generate offense. This reminds me a lot of Florida’s matchups with Kentucky from earlier in the year when the Gators’ offense actually helped their defense by not allowing the Wildcats any run out opportunities. The same scenario will definitely be in play here as the Gators look to kill two birds with one stone with their offense.
Texas Tech uses isolations for 10.6% of their shots, easily the highest of any opponent the Gators have faced this season. This actually comes as a surprise to me as I assumed the veteran Red Raiders would rely more on set offenses and motion schemes but really they are looking for matchups they can exploit. Keenan Evans, using the speed and ball skills I mentioned earlier, leads the isolation assault from the point but Niem Stevenson, Jarrett Culver, and Zhaire Smith are all wings that love to use their dribble to create offense.
Will this be a problem for the Gators.
KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza are both solid perimeter defenders but they will both be giving up size to their checks. Egor Koulechov, though pretty good with anticipation, isn’t particularly long or freakishly athletic and Jalen Hudson, though possessing the physical attributes, has not always been a locked in defense player and all those things together could make guarding one-on-one basketball difficult. Texas Tech might also use screen and rolls to try to generate switches and though Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone are post players who can handle themselves in space I’m not as confident in Gorjok Gak and Dontay Bassett’s ability to guard these guys if there are switches. Preparing to guard isolation ball can be difficult because it isn’t like you’re preparing for a particular action but the team can reiterate fundamentals of man defense like forcing ball handlers to the baseline so that help can come from the opposite baseline one pass away. If the Gators are able to force tough shots in isolation then Texas Tech’s offense will really struggle, not only to score but to create any kind of rhythm.
Though usually a man-to-man defensive team we saw Texas Tech pull out a zone for stretches against Stephen F. Austin and it really threw a wrench into what the Lumberjacks were trying to do. Often times in one-and-done tournament scenarios teams will change things up from the norm to try and confuse their opponent and that very well could have been what we witnessed. Should we expect them to do it against Florida? Perhaps. St. Bonaventure gave Florida fits with their zone (a game I’m certain Chris Beard and his staff will watch) and though the metrics say the Gators are better when facing zone defenses than man (which I wrote in my St. Bonaventure preview) the eye test sometimes tells the exact opposite. Texas Tech’s zone was a bit different than St. Bonaventure’s and didn’t stack up the strong side of the floor quite as much as the Bonnies’ did but had a lot of the same principals in limiting ball movement inside. Mike White made some great adjustments at the half against the Bonnies that really helped the offensive flow which makes me believe they will be ready for any defense thrown their way.
Keys to the Game
The whole group of wings who is going to have their hands full on both sides of the floor trying to find any space to attack offensively and defending dribble drives defensively. Texas Tech is a wing-based team often putting out four guards (Brandone Francis, who played shooting guard for the Gators, is often played as a power forward) and they are going to be constantly probing from all four spots for opportunities to attack. Any time a player can get dribble penetration it breaks down the defense and the Gators will need to cut that off to the best of their abilities. I’m anticipating Texas Tech trying to really limit Chris Chiozza’s time and space in both the man and zone defenses and when that happens they will need wings to provide secondary playmaking. If that doesn’t happen than Florida’s offense could really struggle in a very similar fashion to their first have against St. Bonaventure when the Bonnies used all their focus to block out Chiozza.
Hey, I know I get deep into the stats but I recognize that when it comes down to it, you’ve just got to win. It’s definitely going to be a battle when they take on the Red Raiders but if they can continue to defend the way they have recently and can get some key jumpers to fall we could be looking at a Sweet Sixteen matchup.