After a week of taking care of business and watching some of its main competition take losses, the 3rd-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (20-3, 10-0 SEC; Kenpom: 5; T-Rank: 4; NET: 3) heads into the second week of February looking to inch closer to its second regular season SEC Championship in three years. But before Nate Oats’ group can start thinking about getting the scissors out to cut down some nets, the Tide will have to navigate arguably its toughest three-game stretch of the season in the coming week, which begins tonight in Tuscaloosa against the bubbly Florida Gators (13-10, 6-4 SEC; Kenpom: 38; T-Rank: 44; NET: 42).
Florida is led by first year head coach Todd Golden, who is hoping to take the Gators back to the Glory Days of the Billy Donovan era. Year One has been a bit bumpy though, as Florida finds itself just barely over .500 against the nation’s 18th-toughest schedule. Still, the Gators are very much alive for the NCAA Tournament as we stand about a month out from Selection Sunday. Bracket Matrix has them listed in what is essentially the ‘others receiving votes’ category. The reason being that brutal schedule that they have played. Their worst loss of the season in terms of opponent quality was a neutral site loss to Oklahaoma, something Alabama is very much familiar with. They also boast a win over Tennessee, a much-needed addition to their resume that they snagged just last week.
They could certainly use a lot more than that though, and Alabama represents a golden - pun very much intended - opportunity for the Gators. Expect Florida to give it their absolute best tonight, which will certainly be enough to topple the top-tier Tide if the fellas don’t show up ready to go.
POINT 6’3 Kyle Lofton (9.0 PPG, 3.0 APG, 3.0 RPG, 98.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Myreon Jones (5.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 95.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Riley Kugel (6.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 95.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Will Richard (10.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 95.0 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Colin Castleton (15.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.7 APG, 88.4 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’0 Trey Bonham (6.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 93.8 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Kowacie Reeves (8.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 97.9 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Alex Fudge (6.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 94.1 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Jason Jitoboh (2.4 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 96.3 DRtg)
Golden has utilized a lot of different starting units this season, but he seems to have settled on this current group in recent weeks. A true 4-Out, 1-In scheme, the Gators have decided to surround stud big man Colin Castleton with a quartet of guards. This has allowed the All-SEC post the space to isolate defenders in the block (50.0% FG%) and force help-side defenders to suck in, allowing him to then hit open shooters out on the perimeter (19.9% AST%).
Now, unfortunately for the Gators, they don’t have many great shooters on the team. Kyle Lofton (42.8%/31.9%/82.6%) and Myreon Jones (33.6%/28.4%/85.2%) are capable jump-shooters, but not with any kind of consistency. Lofton, Dom Welch’s teammate at St. Bonaventure the previous four years, is more of a distributor (18.2% AST%), and Jones is really counted on for his defensive presence. This is the main reason why Belmont transfer Will Richard (47.1%/41.1%/88.2%) and true freshman Riley Kugel (41.5%/35.6%/65.9%) have forced their way into the starting lineup. Both are capable of getting red-hot and forcing defenses to spread out on the wings, opening things up for Castleton on the inside.
Off the bench, Florida isn’t super-deep, but they make up for it in quality. Kowacie Reeves and Alex Fudge were both starters for a large portion of the season. Reeves isn’t much of a threat offensively (38.0%/28.0%/75.0%), but his size allows him to defend out on the wing at a solid level. Fudge, one of Will Wade’s finest, is more of a traditional stretch-four (43.0%/32.3%/68.3%) with a high motor and serious athleticism (11.9% REB%). Trey Bonham’s been called upon more since C.J. Felder’s injury, and Jason Jitoboh adds depth and size for whenever Castleton needs a break.
Three Keys to Victory
- Hold up against Castleton. The Florida big man is the engine driving their offense. The Gators will be looking to get him the ball in the paint on every possession, and it is imperative that Alabama’s bigs be able to defend him one-on-one. Whether that be Charles Bediako, Noah Clowney, Noah Gurley, or Nick Pringle, stopping Castleton is priority #1 on the defensive end. If the Tide can slow him down, the Gators will be stifled significantly on offense. Unfortunately, skilled big men have been Alabama’s Achilles heel all season defensively, so this is going to be a major test tonight.
- Dominate the Glass. The good news about how Florida runs its offense is that it leaves basically no room for offensive rebounding. The Gators are 313th in the country in OREB%. Structurally, it’s just tough to rebound with four guards playing out around the perimeter while your big man takes most of your shots. And on the other end, playing four guys under 6’6 on the floor together also leads to quite a few opportunities for second chance points for Alabama, a team quite used to getting after it on the glass. The Tide has a great opportunity to get a substantial plus-margin in possessions tonight; the guys have got to take advantage of it.
- Move the Basketball. Where Florida has really found its success this season is on the defensive end of the court. The Gators have the 10th best Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in the country, led by its two-point defense, where they rank 7th at 43.1% 2P% allowed. They stack the paint and smother anyone who tries to enter it. Castleton himself averages 3.1 BPG on a 9.5% BLK%, which is really pretty insane and is obviously among the best in college basketball. Alabama is also pretty bad about forcing things in the paint, usually by a driving guard who gets his shot swatted. For all of the Tide’s offensive efficiencies, they rank 356th in % of shots blocked at 12.6% - bottom ten in the country. Alabama’s offense really needs to be intentional about passing the ball around and getting open looks.
As the season begins to come into the home stretch, every goal that a team can accomplish is still on the table for Alabama. It’s been an incredible year for Tide Hoops, but if Nate Oats and company really want this season to be one that is hailed as one of the best in program history, they need to finish out strongly. That is especially true for the upcoming week, as Alabama will hit the road for back-to-back away trips to hated rivals Auburn and #6 Tennessee after this game tonight in Tuscaloosa.
Which is why tonight’s game is so important. A loss in this one would open the door for the rest of the conference contenders to jump back into the race for the regular season crown. Alabama is favored by 9.5 points tonight, but the Tide will really need to bring it to cover that number. Florida can cause some serious issues in spots. The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST tonight and will be televised on ESPN2.