GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A mass text spread the word late Thursday to men in apartments and dorm rooms in this college town.
Arkansas upset Kentucky, and so Florida — already the popularly elected No. 1 team in America — was also back-to-back SEC champions.
Anticlimactic, to be sure.
Getting four games clear with three left to play without lacing up your sneakers would qualify.
But that is life in the bizarro world that is the SEC this season when a game in Lexington, Ky., hands you a crown.
Presto: Billy Donovan’s veteran-laden crew locked up the program’s fourth title in the past eight seasons.
Now, if you’re LSU, there might be a silver lining to all of this.
The Gators have little, in theory, to play for over the next 10 days. The top-seed in the SEC tournament is theirs. They’re considered a strong lock for a No. 1 seed, too, in the NCAA tournament. So long as UF doesn’t go completely into the tank, the program’s bigger goal is a breakthrough in March Madness — runs that have ended the past three seasons in the Elite Eight.
So, maybe you catch the Gators on a day, one where the celebration will take place at O’Connell Center, somewhat content.
Maybe you topple the No. 1 team in the land — a feat LSU hasn’t pulled of in more than 11 years.
Maybe you snap a 20-game winning streak — one that started after a buzzer at UConn left the Gators staggering.
Maybe you halt a 30-game home winning streak at a place called the O-Dome, too.
“They a great team playing on their home court,” LSU guard Anthony Hickey said. “We’ve just got to focus, go in like we always do, and play LSU basketball.”
“We’re playing against a very, very talented, very good team in LSU,” Florida coach Billy Donovan told reporters Friday. “Our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played. Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well.”
So, all was calm when Florida’s players saw the message accompanying the good news: Nothing that transpired had anything to do with UF. LSU still loomed.
“We worked for it, but at the same time we’re trying to chase greatness,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said Friday afternoon. “We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have that honor. But we still have a lot of things to accomplish.”
What can hearten LSU, which is trying to snap a six-game road losing streak and break out of a four-team pack tied for fourth in the SEC?
The Gators have looked vulnerable the past two weeks.
On Feb. 19, UF rallied past struggling Auburn, who led by eight points at halftime, in a 71-66 victory. A week ago, Marshall Henderson went off for 22 points in the first half before being shut out in the second half for Ole Miss, who hung around until the final minute during a 75-71 victory for Florida. On Wednesday, the Gators gritted out a 57-54 victory at Vanderbilt.
Slipping focus, or simply the perils of conference play? Regardless, UF is now 13-2 this season in games decided by single digits, and 6-1 in games decided by five points or less.
“A lot of things have to do with the ball going in the basket. I can think of a lot of games last year where I thought we had really good looks and we didn’t make shots,” Donovan said. “Those things kind of culminate to being able to play as well. If you can get stops, get good looks and make free throws, you’re probably going to be a team coming down the stretch that is going to put itself in a position to win.”
None of this surprises LSU coach Johnny Jones in the least.
Of course, UF’s quartet of vets in forwards Patric Young and Will Yeguete along with guards Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather makes that easy to deduce.
“That’s their make up,” Jones said. “They have great leadership in those types of games through the years, and they have the ability to close. When you have guys that understand their roles and can make big plays, they know exactly who to go to.”
Meanwhile, LSU, which is coming off putting Texas A&M in a chokehold Wednesday, faces a last stand — of sorts.
The Tigers started the week at the back of a seven-team wreck — or tie for fourth place, depending on your perspective — in the middle of the SEC standings. A win today might help get the Tigers better positioning among peers Ole Miss, Tennessee and Arkansas — all of whom also stand at 8-7 — in a push for a double-by in Atlanta at the SEC tournament.
It might also breathe new life into all but dead NCAA tournament aspirations by giving Jones’ crew a quality win it missed last week in overtime at Kentucky. Do so, and maybe LSU can pick a trail from among the 20-plus options that might wind its way back to the bubble for an at-large berth.
“It’s an opportunity for us to open a door back up,” Hickey said.
- When: 3 p.m. today.
- Where: Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
- Records: LSU 17-10, 8-7 SEC; No. 1 Florida 26-2, 15-0
- TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery).
- Series: LSU leads 60-42.
- Last Meeting: Florida won 80-58 on March 15, 2013, in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: The NCAA updates its statistical page only once a week, so I’ve decided to forgo using the rankings given that it doesn’t provide a real-time idea of where LSU stands. KenPom.com has player breakdowns and usage stats, so I’ll utilize those metrics in the Players to Watch section. If you have questions about the statistical categories, head here.
- Points Per Game: 77.3
- FG %: 45.2
- 3FG%: 34.5
- FT%: 67.3
- Rebounds Per Game: 40.5
- Assists Per Game: 14.7
- Turnovers Per Game: 14.2
- Adjusted Efficiency: 110.8 (No. 61)
- Adjusted Tempo: 70.9 (No. 25)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 16.7 (No. 57)
- Effective FG%: 50.6 (No. 121)
- Turnover %: 19.6 (No. 261)
- Off. Reb %: 36.7 (No. 31)
- FTA/FGA: 34.9 (No. 304)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 71.9
- FG% D: 40.5
- 3FG% D: 35.0
- FT%: 72.0
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 36.4
- Rebound Margin: +4.1
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 10.8
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.2
- Adjusted Efficiency: 100.1 (No. 81)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 16.9 (No. 26)
- Effective FG% D: 45.4 (No. 36)
- Turnover %: 18.3 (No. 185)
- Off. Reb. %: 31.9 (No. 204)
- FTA/FGA: 40.1 (No. 166)
- Points Per Game: 70.8
- FG %: 45.6
- 3FG%: 34.3
- FT%: 67.7
- Rebounds Per Game: 36.3
- Assists Per Game: 13.0
- Turnovers Per Game: 11.3
- Adjusted Efficiency: 116.6 (No. 12)
- Adjusted Tempo: 62.6 (No. No. 334)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 17.9 (No. 165)
- Effective FG%: 51.5 (No. 82)
- Turnover %: 17.8 (No. 127)
- Off. Reb %: 37.7 (No. 21)
- FTA/FGA: 45.0 (No. 70)
- Points Allowed Per Game: 58.6
- FG% D: 40.3
- 3FG% D: 34.8
- FT%: 67.7
- Rebounds Allowed Per Game: 30.6
- Rebound Margin: +5.7
- Assists Allowed Per Game: 9.8
- Turnovers Forced Per Game: 13.8
- Adjusted Efficiency: 92.7 (No. 10)
- Avg. Poss. Length: 20.0 (No. 350)
- Effective FG% D: 45.9 (No. 47)
- Turnover %: 21.7 (No. 21)
- Off. Reb. %: 29.7 (No. 91)
- FTA/FGA: 32.1 (No. 29)
- Will Hickey or Wilbekin reign? For the past month, the point guards in this one have been maestros. LSU’s Anthony Hickey has averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 assists per game, including a sterling 4.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. And Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin? He’s taken over the scoring load as Casey Prather battles ankle issues and tendinitis in his knee. The senior has bounced back from an early season suspension to average 18.6 points and 4.3 assists over the Gators’ past seven outings. “He’s the trigger guy, because he creates opportunities for other guys on the floor and can make big plays,” Jones said of Wilbekin. “In the end of games and closing games, he’s got the ball in his hands, because he’s a great decision maker.” Hickey’s take? “I’ve just got to use my speed and can keep him out of the lane,” Hickey said of Wilbekin, who only takes 20.0 percent of his shots at the rim but dishes out 36.4 percent of assists in tight quarters. And both are stellar defensive players, particularly applying on-ball pressure. Only Hickey, who can play like a rover in passing lanes, has checked his risk-taking recently. In February, he’s averaging only 0.7 steals per game, down from the 2.1 he nabbed per game. “I haven’t really been gambling lately,” Hickey said. “Coach has wanted me to play great on-ball defense, and I’ve just been keeping my man in front of me. You can’t gamble against a great player like Wilbekin.” That doesn’t mean Florida thinks Hickey’s completely stopped internal calculations about when and where he can force turnovers. “Coach emphasized to us yesterday they get a lot of steals,” Frazier said. “We’re going to have to do a good job taking care of the ball, executing on offense and getting stops on defense.” Whichever guard can wrestle control of the game away from the other will be telling.
- Is LSU’s defensive makeover for real? We already know Florida can defend, but the Tigers have managed to clamp down to a degree against Kentucky and Texas A&M. Those two opponents shot 36.9 percent (44 of 119), including 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from behind the 3-point line. That’s swell, but keep an eye on how staunch LSU is in defending the lane. Over the past seven games, they’ve been outscored in the paint six times, allowing 33.3 points during that stretch and getting outscored by almost four points per game around the rim. A lot of focus has centered on defending the 3-point line, a category where LSU is still clearly last in the SEC during conference play at 38.4 percent. The Gators shoot a pedestrian 33.0 percent in SEC action, but are second with 105 made 3-pointers. How to explain this situation? LSU hasn’t done a good job exactly stopping dribble penetration — watch Auburn’s Chris Denson, State’s Craig Sword, Georgia’s Charles Mann, or Mizzou’s three-headed monster in Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Ernest Ross — and winds up in a bind. They get beat off the dribble by big guards barreling toward the rim for a bucket, or on 3-ball lofted after a kick out and a slow close out or rotation in the shell. Florida has a guy in Casey Prather adept at both. The senior finishing around the rim (57.7 percent of his shots come there) with a 72.7 field goal percentage, according to hoop-math.com. He also shoots 40 percent from behind the arc. Throw in Wilbekin’s ability to drive and kick (47.7 percent of his assists are for 3-pointers), and the Tigers on-ball defense will be under assault again if Prather is healthy enough to slash along with Wilbekin, and Frazier II can spot up. Throw in the Gators’ ability to pound the offensive glass, and the Tigers will see whether they’ve truly evolved stopping opponents.
- Can LSU get pace to its liking? Florida’s defense grinds opponents into refined pulp with an average possession length of 20 seconds. LSU showed it could execute in a throttled down tempo where the Tigers had just 63 possessions — seven below their average — and got a good sense for how UF will want this unfold. Jones said after Wednesday’s win the Tigers are comfortable playing at any pace, but getting into the open floor would seem to facilitate some chances against Florida. First of all, Hickey turns into a distributor instead of a spot-up jump shooter. He doles out 48.5 of his assists in transition. In the half court, he averages twice as many 3-point attempts (3.8) as he does assists (1.9) for LSU. Typically, though, LSU’s offense flows through the paint and forward Johnny O’Bryant III. But Florida only allows 20.1 points per game in the lane at home, and roughly eight of those come on second-chance points. So, in reality, Florida is giving up just six direct scoring plays at the rim per game. So it might behoove LSU to try and get into the open floor and push the ball so it can try to attack the rim before the Gators set up. Easier said then done, though. Florida allows only 18.5 percent of shot attempts in transition — tops in the SEC.
In this section, we pick out a player for each side that could be pivotal or interesting to watch. It’s not always a starter or a star, either.
- F Johnny O’Bryant III, Jr., 6-9, 256 pounds: Let’s be clear: O’Bryant has never been totally at full-strength against Florida. He sat out his freshman year with a broken bone in his hand. Last season, he was only a couple games back from a high-ankle sprain and was trying to round into form. Finally, in the SEC tournament he seemed to tweak the same ankle injury. It’s all added up to a career stat line of 5.0 points and 6.5 rebounds to with 33.3 percent shooting. On Saturday, though, he’ll be healthy. Florida’s interior defense has been somewhat taxed, too, by elite SEC big men. Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and Kentucky’s Julius Randle have a combined for an average 15.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game against UF. That’s somewhat in line with O’Bryant’s production of 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds a night in SEC play. “Major concern,” Donovan said when asked about LSU’s frontcourt. “Major concern.” If JOBIII gets rolling, it might set the table for Jordan Mickey to thrive off dive cuts and interior feeds. Or allow Jarell Martin to take kickouts for 3-pointers or drive into creases if UF’s on-point rotations are lagging. “Now O’Bryant has got some legitimate guys around him,” Donovan said. “Their team has gotten drastically bigger, stronger and more physical. So our ability to play post defense is critical, our ability to rebound the ball is critical. And then you have to do a really great job on them on the perimeter. Martin shoots it, Hickey shoots it, and so does Stringer.”
- G Casey Prather, Sr., 6-6, 212 pounds: If the award existed, Prather would probably be in line for the SEC’s most-improved player. In his first three seasons, he averaged 3.5 points per game, but has seen that jump to 14.8 this season. Prather has six games where’s he’s scored 20-plus points, and seems due after off nights at Ole Miss (7) and Vanderbilt (2) in the past week. As we noted above, he can split his role between driving the ball and spotting up. Throw in his size, and LSU may see a familiar scenario unfold where it’s smaller back court has to try and slow a bigger, sturdier guards. The group of UK’s James Young, States’ Craig Sword, Arkansas’ Ky Madden, Georgia’s Charles Mann and the Mizzou Trio combined to average 24.1 points per game and shoot 50.8 percent from the floor in their eight games against LSU. The Tigers are 4-3 in those games, and the question is whether Prather must carry the load, or if he simply leads the pack for a lineup featuring four players that score in double figures.
KenPom Prediction: Florida 76, LSU 64 (89-percent confidence).