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Hoops Preview: Florida might be ripe for an upset it can’t afford

The Gators’ chances for an at-large bid are still dicey, giving Missouri a chance to play spoiler as it looks to pick up a road win in Gainesville.

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NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Since bracketologists and bubble watchers began plotting out and predicting the NCAA tournament field, Florida’s hung out in purgatory.

Two weeks ago, the Gators’ trajectory resembled a nosedive. At 12-11 overall, coach Mike White’s squad exited a five-game stretch against TCU, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee with just one victory to show for itself. Meanwhile, any flexibility for his flaky front court evaporated after Gorjak Gak redshirted and Keith Stone was lost on Jan. 19 to a knee injury against Georgia.

Forced to play a four-guard lineup, Florida’s stingy defense, which had helped it limp along, became a sieve, allowing 14 more points per 100 possessions than it had over the season’s first 18 games, according to HoopLens. It turns out a trip to Alabama and Coleman Coliseum, where UF had won 12 consecutive times, was a timely remedy.

Last Saturday, the Gators trounced the Tide, and then they followed it up with an overtime win at No. 13 LSU on Wednesday night — their third win in a row. As The Athletic’s Eamonn Brennan noted, Florida’s body of work has kept it on the periphery of bubble debates ($) but lacked marks of distinction for the committee to highlight. Now, an upset in Baton Rouge doesn’t blot out the Gators inconsistency. What it does, though, is put a quality result on a resume that sits at No. 31 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

The stakes are clear as Missouri arrives today for tilt inside Exatech Arena: the Gators can’t afford a bad loss this late in February. A loss would also be an elbow to the jaw as teams jockey for seeding in the SEC tournament. Right now, the Gators would be the eighth seed, but KenPom projects them to win four of their final five games — a finish that would leave them at 18-13 and 10-8 in the SEC.

In a year where the bubble is squishier than usual, those credentials should earn them an at-large berth.

And what about Mizzou?

Well, its goals are more modest. Rallying for a .500 finish is attainable. And for a young roster, seeing Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson and K.J. Santos pick up some momentum as the season winds down would also be a boon. Springing an upset in Gainesville isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility, either, especially given how inconsistent the Gators can be on the offensive end.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (12-13, 3-10 SEC) Florida (15-11, 7-6 SEC)
Position Missouri (12-13, 3-10 SEC) Florida (15-11, 7-6 SEC)
PG Xavier Pinson (Fr., 6-2, 170) Andrew Nembhard (Fr., 6-5, 191)
CG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) KeVaughn Allen ( Sr., 6-2, 193)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Noah Locke (Fr., 6-3, 205)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Keyontae Johnson (Fr., 6-6-195)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Kevarrius Hayes (Sr., 6-9, 227)

Note: These starting lineups are projected based on each team’s prior game.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Funneling the ball to Jeremiah Tilmon on the low block, where Florida is 226th nationally defending post-ups, would be a prudent move. And given Florida’s small stature on the frontline, Saturday might be an outing where Kevin Puryear can exploit a mismatch against switches, especially if he can isolate Noah Locke in the mid-post. Over the past five games, Florida’s allowed opponents to shoot 55.6 percent around the rim — a godsend for a team like MU, which has struggled to convert from point-blank range.

The Gators have been steady at closing down on perimeter shooters, but if they have to send extra help inside, that creates long closeouts. Whether MU, which is only shooting 26.9 percent on 3-balls taken at the top of the key and the left side of the floor, can feast on opposite-wing sickouts remains to be seen. Even if those shots aren’t dropping, the Gators currently rank 12th in the SEC for corralling defensive rebounds. Today would be an ideal time for Watson, Mark Smith and Jordan Geist to catch a spark.

It’s also worth keeping tabs on how many minutes Martin doles out to four-guard rotations. Recently, they’ve been an alternative if Santos or Mitchell Smith fails to get traction early in relief of Puryear. Will MU’s staff expand its usage, or would that be a move the now undersized Gators find to be a relief?

Florida Defense | We’ll dispense with a critical stat: The Gators lead the SEC in turnover rate (22.9%) during conference play, and MU is dead last in transition defense. Four of White’s starters — Keyontae Johnson (2.92), KeVaughn Allen (2.87), Kevarrius Hayes (2.77) and Andrew Nembhard (2.58) — rank among the top 20 players in steal percentage, per KenPom. It’s not reductive at all to say that MU’s chances hinge on clutching the ball tightly.

The Gators don’t want to play at a breakneck pace, but they will run when the opportunity presents itself. When they have to sit down and guard using a smaller lineup, there are mismatches the Tigers can isolate. Opponents have also found success cashing in their misses for sticklebacks against this roster.

But if MU can’t put Florida in a bind when it comes to orienting help inside, the Gators spot-up defense is among the top-40 nationally. Meanwhile, their wings are sound navigating pick-and-roll coverages. The only weak link on the perimeter is Jalen Hudson, but the senior’s abysmal (and stunning) regression on the offensive end made it easy for White to make a lineup swap.

The linchpin is Hayes, who ranks third for block percentage and 11th for steal percentage during SEC play, according to KenPom. You can beat him up a little bit on the left block, but he’s able offsets that by catalyzing Florida’s secondary break, which lets Allen attack in the open floor. But he’ll give away a couple of inches and roughly 25 pounds to Tilmon today. If he can’t hold up or gets into foul trouble, matters get dicey in a hurry for the Gators.

Missouri offense vs. Florida defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 105.4 (142) 18.8 (322) 50.6 (181) 21.5 (318) 31.4 (84) 29.7 (274) 36.8 (66) 47.3 (271) 70.1 (189) 10.6 (270) 9.0 (193)
Florida 90.3 (10) 18.9 (351) 48.0 (58) 23.6 (8) 31.9 (303) 35.4 (241) 31.4 (47) 48.7 (112) 68.9 (96) 13.1 (30) 11.5 (20)

When Florida has the ball...

Florida Offense | The Gators recent surge still can’t mask the fact they don’t shoot the ball consistently, don’t pave a path to the free-throw line and don’t generate a ton of second possessions. Finding productive lineups often requires a defensive tradeoff — one White isn’t always willing to make.

Last season, Florida would clear out a side of the floor and let Chris Chiozza go to work. This year, the default mode is a high pick-and-roll for Nembhard, who only trails Mississippi State’s Lamar Peters for the most possessions in that action among SEC players, per Synergy. Nembhard isn’t a great finisher around the rim, but he can be productive when he slides the ball off to a roll man.

How MU manages its coverages will be a focal point. Do they want to apply more ball pressure to take away sight lines? Or will they sink back and tell guards to avoid stunting in, making it easy for the Tigers’ guards to close out hands high?

If you can gum up the works for Nembhard, it constrains the damage Locke can inflict. The freshman lives off catch-and-shoot jumpers but is merely average (33.3 FG%) when forced work and run off screens. Stifling Florida’s pick-and-roll makes Nembhard work off the ball to spring himself loose for less efficient attempts.

Allen’s also a viable option in ball-screens, where he’s prone to take mid-range pull-ups and can struggle at times to make plays near the front of the rim. (Granted, he’s automatic if he draws a foul, hitting at 93 percent clip in SEC play.) He can hit spot-up jumpers (37.5 percent) and is a three-level threat when driving left after attacking a closeout. Now, he is the primary ballhandler in transition and excellent (1.191 PPP) when pushing the rock down the floor.

The Gators are drilling corner 3-pointers lately, but have only connected on 23.9 percent of their remaining attempts behind the arc. None of their guards are shooting the ball well: Allen (36.5), Lock (34.8), Hudson (39.1) are all under 40 percent, and Johnson is just over the bar at 41.5 percent. Outside of Hayes and Nembhard, finishing around the rim has also been dicey the past three games, with the rest of White’s group only converting 48.5 percent of the time. just

Missouri Defense | MU slipped a bit with Mark Smith out of the lineup and turned to Ronnie Suggs’ length to shore up its perimeter defense. It hasn’t always worked, but the alternatives were few and far between. If Smith’s finally able to go full bore, then Cuonzo Martin can deploy him on KeVaughn Allen and have Geist or Pinson alternate picking up Nembhard. That leaves Pickett keeping tabs on Locke.

MU grades out well when it comes to defending spot-ups and post-ups, which may put more pressure on the Gators to get out and run. Forcing Florida to play in the half court blunts any impact that Johnson can have on the game. He’s better as a roll man and cutter, but if MU’s clamped off Nembhard, it’s hard to see where Johnson gets his touches. The same logic applies to Hayes, who will also have to contend with Tilmon on the block.

By now, you know that Missouri’s defense relies on positioning and forcing opponents to take shots from spots on the floor where they’re uncomfortable. Today, it means forcing Locke to knock in jumpers coming off screens, clogging up the middle of the floor for Nembhard and Allen, and having Hayes try to score over Tilmon’s length.

Florida offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Florida 108.8 (76) 17.6 (182) 49.7 (227) 18.0 (117) 31.3 (86) 27.8 (305) 34.1(181) 48.5 (239) 70.9 (156) 9.0 (160) 8.6 (145)
Missouri 98.3 (73) 17.6 (229) 50.3 (158) 18.7 (177) 26.6 (102) 36.7 (268) 32.7 (92) 51.1 (211) 70.7 (189) 5.4 (336) 6.8 (320)

What does KenPom predict?

Florida 66, Missouri 55 | If Florida were healthy, I’d agree MU only has an 18-percent chance of stealing a road win. But UF’s current roster is undersized, short-staffed and letting teams get to the rim. Toss in the fact that those same guards are scuffling a little bit offensively from the perimeter, and I can envision a scenario where MU is able to bully UF down low, hit just enough jumpers and turn the screws defensively to get a win. Heck, White’s bunch already dropped home games to South Carolina and Texas A&M, while their overall profile screams inconsistency. Now, maybe MU can’t swipe a win, but I don’t envision the final margin Mr. Pomeroy is forecasting.