The Florida Gators (10-5, 2-1 SEC) bounced back from Wednesday night’s embarrassing defeat in Knoxville, defeating a hot LSU team 68-62 at a raucous O’Connell Center Saturday afternoon. The Tigers, led by the likely #1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Montverde Academy product Ben Simmons, entered Gainesville confident after routing Kentucky in Baton Rouge Tuesday evening. But the Gators jumped on LSU 5-0 early and never trailed, icing a 1 point game late with splendid team defense and clutch- yes, this team- clutch free throws. It was a statement win for Mike White’s team and signal of intent for the young coach’s program- the Gators are a formidable opponent when they play with sustained effort for 40 minutes.
Here are five thoughts on the resume-building win.
- Ben Simmons is a spectacular talent, but the Gators disrupted him enough to win the game.
Simmons isn’t Lebron or Magic Johnson- he doesn’t shoot the three and he seems averse to mid-range jumpers, but he’s a frightening player off the bench with his exceptional size and quickness and he’s a marvelous passer both inside and outside of the paint. The Gators used a variety of players to defend him, as well as traps, hedges and more standard double teams, and eventually, they had their effect. Simmons picked up two offensive fouls en route to fouling out and turned the ball over 8 times in the second half, with at least two of those turnovers leading to transition baskets for Florida. Simmons final turnover, a travel where he couldn’t decide whether to take on a double team or pass to a wide open Aaron Epps, was immense in helping Florida secure the victory.
Simmons still finished with an outstanding line of 28 points and 17 rebounds, but his 8 turnovers was a career high and his assist to turnover ratio of 1:2 was a career worst. In other words, the Gators defended like the top 5 KenPom defense they are , and Saturday, with a juiced home crowd behind them, it was enough to get a big win against the SEC’s most efficient offense.
- Florida did an outstanding job defending LSU’s very talented complimentary pieces, which is how you beat LSU.
It wasn’t entirely stunning that LSU stumbled a bit out of the gate this year. Despite some head scratching results, the Tigers did play more than half the non-conference slate without sharp-shooting senior guard Keith Hornsby, who along with the departed Jarrell Martin tortured the Gators twice last season from the perimeter. Hornsby returned in mid-December and the Tigers had gone 5-2 since, with impressive wins over Kentucky and preseason media darling Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym. Hornsby is one of the three best pieces Simmons has to help- the others being 6’6 wing Tim Quarterman and McDonald’s All-American guard Antonio Blakeney, the Orlando product who ditched in-state FSU and Florida for LSU.
Saturday, the Gators held Hornsby to 10 points, six and a half below his season average, and didn’t allow him to connect on a three-pointer, contesting 4 of 5 misses (the other rattled in and out after a really nice inbound play). They harassed and frustrated Blakeney as well, holding the freshmen to 7 points on 2-7 shooting, numbers again below his season average of 10 points. Blakeney did a fine job defending, particularly on fellow freshmen KeVaughn Allen, but wasn’t the explosive player who has poured in double figures in six LSU wins this season.
More critically, they held Quarterman, a quality combo guard at the next level, to 3 points and 3 assists, forcing him to extend his shots and keeping him out of the lane. Quarterman isn’t Chandler Parsons, who he draws some comparisons too. He isn’t as tall and as a consequence isn’t nearly as good a driver or rebounder, but he’s as good a passer and is just as dangerous from the arc. Silencing him makes LSU very guard oriented for scoring outside of Simmons.
Limiting the best three complimentary pieces LSU has to Simmons to 20 points is a good way to beat LSU, and a testament to the fact that…
- Florida’s role players deserve the credit for the victory.
On an afternoon when Dorian Finney-Smith only played 22 minutes due to foul trouble and a bloody face, Devin Robinson scored only 4 points and spent much of the day in foul trouble, and star freshmen KeVaughn Allen scored only 8 points on 4-14 shooting, the Gators needed points from somewhere else to have a chance. They got them, from Justin Leon, the transfer starting his third consecutive game, who had a career high 14 points and snagged 9 rebounds. They got them, from John Egbunu, who showed he could play against a good team while in foul trouble and be a tremendous scoring option, scoring 13 points, including two splendid little jump hooks and a handful of crucial free throws down the stretch. If the Gators get 27 points of production from two starters not named Doe-Doe or KeVaughn is a recipe for the Gators to win several conference games.
More crucial than the offensive production from role players was what Florida received defensively from the bench.
Junior wing DeVon Walker continues to embrace his role as a defensive stopper, providing valuable defense on Simmons with Finney-Smith in foul trouble early and bottling up Quarterman late. Walker continues to struggle on offense but as a rebounder and defender, he’s making his mark on winning.
Stanford transfer Schuyler Rimmer also provided a boost off the bench, with help defense on LSU’s various bigs and Ben Simmons and with two immense second-half free throws. A healthy Rimmer allows White to tinker with his rotations and attempt to keep at least one of Finney-Smith, Robinson or Egbunu fresh every segment, but Saturday, with Finney-Smith out half the game and Egbunu in foul trouble, he was even more valuable.
4. Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill were splendid.
Chiozza had an astonishing 8 to 0 assist to turnover ratio, facilitating for teammates on a day where his shots weren’t falling. Given the size of LSU’s guards, that’s exceptional production. And Chiozza’s alley oops passes to Egbunu and Robinson both electrified the crowd in the first half and helped Florida find offense at a time when their top scorers were either on the bench or struggling.
Kasey Hill didn’t have an assist, but he also avoided any turnovers and gave the Gators transition opportunities with three steals. For the Gator point guards to have zero turnovers against a LSU team that entered the game turning opponents over 17 times a contest is terrific, especially after a horrific performance in the turnover department Wednesday evening.
5. This week will be tough. A split is crucial.
The Gators travel to Reed Arena to play a ranked Texas A & M squad Tuesday night.The Aggies, a veteran team led by seniors Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Danuel House, are 9-0 at home this season and will be happy to return home after two grueling road wins at Miss State and Texas A & M. In terms of resume, it is hard to imagine a team with more quality wins than the Aggies, who in early January already boast wins over Gonzaga, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Arkansas. The Gators ability to string multiple quality games together has been an issue all year- they’ll have to play brilliantly to have a chance Tuesday.
The Gators finish the week in Oxford, Mississippi against a 11-3 Ole Miss team that features the conference’s leading scorer in guard Stefan Moody. Gators fans will remember Moody’s bomb that beat Florida a season ago, but it will take a team effort defensively to escape Oxford with a crucial conference road win.
Realistically, Florida needs a split this week to keep its March goals in front of them. Most good teams can win at home. NCAA tournament quality teams win conference games on the road.