Florida picked up a huge 71-63 win over South Carolina on the road Saturday afternoon. It was their first win in SEC play this season, as they improved to 1-3 in conference play and 10-6 overall. They'll look to stay in the win column when they welcome a very tough 12-4 Mississippi State team to town on Wednesday night.
Saturday was huge for this Gator team, as the their season looked like it was on the brink of disaster heading into the game. In what was the best performance we have seen from them in some time, Florida played good team basketball on both ends of the floor and earned a key SEC road win. If they can get back to making what we saw Saturday a regularity, then we are looking at a completely different team heading into the home stretch of the season.
Gators' keys to the game
The Gators did a lot of very good things against South Carolina. For starters, they got offensive contributions from many different guys and didn't rely on Colin Castleton alone to drive the scoring. Guys like freshman guard Kowacie Reeves (14 points), freshman guard Elijah Kennedy (5 points) and junior center Jason Jitoboh (6 points) stepped up and produced offensively, something the Gators desperately needed. This was a breath of fresh air for Florida and something we hadn't seen since the beginning of the year, where it seemed like every night for those first six games or so all starters were finishing in double figures. They need to repeat that trend on Wednesday night and not force Colin Castleton to carry so much of the load.
The source of all this offense was Florida getting creative and not solely relying on the struggling 5 out they have played all year. They used a lot of different looks, mixing it up between the 5 out and some offensive sets that they got good looks out of, including some back cutting actions that they got a few buckets from. The Gators need to continue to throw different sets and actions at their opponents and not just stay bogged down in the 5 out all game. This will help alleviate some of that pressure they feel and not make them have to go one on one so much and force bad takes, something that is not a strength of this team.
On top of this, Florida shot the ball with confidence. Even though they didn't shoot it at a very high clip from behind the arc, they finished the game shooting 55% (27-49) as a team from the field. You saw guys like Reeves (4-6 FG, 2-3 3PT) and grad. transfer guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (6-11 FG, 2-5 3PT) looking in rhythm and sure about their stroke. One shot that sticks out in my mind occurred with 4:30 left in the game, when Fleming hit a huge step back three with the shot clock winding down to put the Gators up 13 and take the energy out of the building. The Gators have not been shooting the ball particularly well lately or with much of any confidence, so to see them shooting the ball confidently was welcoming and it needs to continue.
Defensively, it was a great team performance for Florida and probably one of the best we have seen this year. Although they didn't force turnovers at an extremely high rate, forcing nine for the game, it was their effort for 40 minutes and relentless pressure that made it so impressive. All game the Gators full court pressure made it very difficult for the Gamecocks to get into their offensive sets and forced South Carolina to have to rush shots late in the shot clock. If they can keep this up on Wednesday, they're going to give the Bulldogs a heck of a fight.
Scouting the Bulldogs
As is the case with almost the entirety of the SEC this year, the Bulldogs are no slouch. They are 12-4 with a 3-1 record in conference play coming into this game and fresh off a home win over 24th ranked Alabama on Saturday.
The Dogs are very balanced offensively, with all five of their regular starters averaging double figures this year. They are led by junior guard Iverson Molinar who is averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists and 3.6 rebounds and coming off a game against Alabama where he finished with 24 points, 4 assists and 6 rebounds in a win. They also have a pair of talented bigs in their front court in 6'11 junior forward Tolu Smith, who is averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game on 61.7% shooting from the field as well as 6'9 senior forward Garrison Brooks, who is averaging 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
As you can tell from the output of their bigs, Mississippi St. is one of the better rebounding teams in the nation and more specifically offensive rebounding. According to teamrankings.com, the Bulldogs rank sixth in opponent total rebounds per game, allowing just 29.2 per contest. They also rank 12th in offensive rebounding percentage at 35.4% per game and as a result 12th in opponent defensive rebounding percentage at 64.6% per game. The likes of Colin Castleton, CJ Felder, Anthony Duruji and Jason Jitoboh are going to have to step up and box out well on the glass if they want to compete on the boards with this team.
The Dogs are deep, too, playing around ten in their rotation every night and they have guys who can come in off the bench and give them instant production. Florida is going to need similar to what they had last game in getting production from many different sources and off the bench. If they can get that and take some pressure off of Colin Castleton to have to score every time down, then they'll put themselves in a good position to win.
Wrap up and Broadcast info.
Every game means something for the Gators the rest of the year and Wednesday is no different. This game could go a long way in determining Florida's NCAA tournament chances come March, as ESPN's Bracketology currently has the Gators as the last team into the dance and Mississippi St. right there with them in the last 4 in. Who knows what these two teams will look like come Selection Sunday, but if the Gators want to help their chances, beating a conference opponent at home who is right there with them will certainly help their case.
Below is the time and TV/Radio information for Wednesday night's game:
Time: 6:30 EST
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Gators Sports Network from LEARFIELD with Mick Hubert and Lee Humphrey