The Gators are fighting for a high seed in March Madness, and Missouri will need to beat them to stake a claim of their own.
No team pictures the fear — and the strange resilience — of this COVID-marred college basketball season more profoundly than the Florida Gators.
Mike White’s team was aiming for the top of the SEC before the season kicked off, and it mostly had to do with Keyontae Johnson, one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year. Of course, anyone paying attention can remember that Johnson collapsed on the court early on in the season, sparking renewed discussions about the safety of athletes playing during a global pandemic. Johnson’s condition ended up being unrelated to COVID, but his sudden serious illness had many watching closely… or maybe not watching at all.
Still, much like life in America over the past year, the Florida Gators soldiered on like nothing had happened. And, much unlike life in America over the past year, things have seemed to go OK for them. While not competing for a conference title, the Gators are solidly among the league’s top four teams and are angling for a good seed come selection Sunday.
The prospect of losing your unquestioned best player for the season is something Missouri fans can relate to over the past several years, though still performing well enough to make the tournament has (mostly) been aspirational. We’ve seen how volatile the Tigers can be in 2021, with or without their best players on deck. As good as the beginning of the year was, the most recent stretch has been tough to swallow in equal measure.
Yet a fortunate turn of events — the rescheduling of the LSU game — gives Missouri one last chance to prove it’s much more than the 7-9 seed it seems destined for. At one point, the Tigers were in contention for something like a No. 3 seed. While that ship has sailed, wins over two NCAA teams could certainly get them close to a 4 or 5 than an 8 or 9.
Of course, that’ll be easier said than done. After all, Florida and LSU are both in the same position as Missouri, jockeying for the best seed possible in March Madness. Their bids are all likely counted for, but the prospect of playing good teams in the final week of the regular season is another chance for all three to state their case for a higher seed.
Missouri may need it the most out of the three. Here’s to hoping their play reflects that urgency.
Note: These starting lineups are projected.
It was mentioned in the intro, but it should be noted again — Florida has done one hell of a job without Keyontae Johnson. Losing an SEC Player of the Year would be tough under normal injury circumstances. That the Gators went through what they did and are producing as well as they are regardless is pretty damn impressive.
Of course, the Gators have a pretty talented starting five even without Johnson. Few bigs in the SEC have been as good as Jeremiah Tilmon, but junior Colin Castleton certainly has a case shooting over 60 percent from two-point range with exceptional offensive rebounding, block and foul drawn rates. The battle between he and Tilmon will be a thrill. Anthony Duruji also holds his own down low and should present a challenge for Kobe Brown. He’s not as gifted of an offensive player, but rebounds well and defends aggressively… sometimes too much so.
Florida’s trio of starting guards — Tyree Appleby, Noah Locke, Tre Mann — is formidable as well. All of them can shoot well from three, and each brings a variety of useful skills to the table. Mann and Appleby create for others, draw fouls at the rim and force turnovers. Locke is the best shooter of the three, is the steadiest with the ball and might be the best defender.
While the Gators do have a deep bench by quantity, their collective foul troubles keeps the number of steady rotation pieces shorter in comparison to the whole. Sophomore Scottie Lewis is the most reliable back court backup, and he ups the Gators’ defensive ability when he’s out there — averaging a team-high steal rate and a high block rate for a 6’5” guard/wing. Omar Payne is Mike White’s go-to front court option on the bench, and only his fouls hold him back from being one of the very best players in the SEC. Payne has Castleton’s interior defense and adds even more efficiency on offense… he just fouls too often to be a go-to option.
Osayi Osifo offers Florida some additional interior presence, though he too struggles greatly with fouls and turnovers. He may be the team’s best pure rebounder, though, and he shoots efficiently from in close. Samson Ruzhenstev, a Russian frosh, offers some pure offensive pop as a lengthy wing, though he isn’t much of a contributor in many other ways. Ques Glover rounds out the back court options, though White should be hesitant to use him given his all-around struggles during the 2020-2021 season.
When Missouri has the ball…
What to Watch | Play physical and smart
Florida’s defense is pretty sound across the board, with a few exceptions both good and bad. The Gators are well above average in three-point defense and blocked shots, but struggle with fouls and defensive rebounding. The former, of course, plays to one of Missouri’s core strengths. For all the things the Tigers have struggled with over the course of the season, they’ve consistently been one of the country’s best teams at free throw attempts to field goal attempts. If Missouri wants the upset, they’ll have to find a way to make up some of the margin at the charity stripe. And lest they get too aggressive, note that Florida is well above-average in steal and turnover rates. Missouri’s guards specifically will have a fine line to walk on the offensive end.
When Florida has the ball…
What to Watch | Take advantage of the Gators’ mistakes
Much like its defense, Florida is a balanced, if unspectacular, team across the board in their offensive half. Their one true weakness, however, is ball security. They rank much, much lower than Missouri in national turnover percentage, specifically when it comes to steals. Missouri isn’t a particularly stingy team, but the Tigers will have to be aggressive on the defensive end to force some extra possessions for themselves. Florida plays with good pace, so the opportunities will be there. Whether or not Missouri takes them is an entirely different question.
Florida 75, Missouri 70 | It’s hard to say how Missouri will come off of its week-long break. Will they be rested after what has been a grueling season? Will they be re-focused after losing four of their last five and dropping headlong from national recognition? Or will they continue to regress, falling victim to another SEC opponent fighting for its spot in both coming postseason tournaments? We’ve seen versions of Missouri that win and lose Wednesday night’s game in Gainesville. Which version shows up will certainly be the question on Missouri fans’ minds — though recent history (and the advanced numbers) tell us Missouri will need an extraordinary effort to return to its early season habit of stacking Quad 1 wins.