Once a year, the Florida Gators make a pilgrimage to Sunrise, in South Florida, to play in the Orange Bowl Classic. Often, the game the Gators have gotten in the OBC is a very good one.
This year’s opponent (4:30 p.m., Fox Sports 2 or Fox Sports Florida) is Clemson — and the Tigers might provide just such a good game.
Clemson isn’t really a sexy name in college hoops — the Tigers last won an NCAA Tournament game in 1997 — but coach Brad Brownell has quietly built his program into one capable of being a mid-pack ACC team. The Tigers are 8-1 in the young 2017-18 season, and while most of their wins are over overmatched mid-majors, they did go to Ohio State and beat the Buckeyes as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
What’s more, Clemson is No. 35 in the KenPom efficiency rankings — Florida enters Saturday at No. 22 — and has a strong interior game to thank for most of that. Big men Elijah Thomas and Donte Grantham anchor the paint for the Tigers, bringing great rebounding (more Thomas), rim protection (again, more Thomas), and scoring efficiency (more Grantham) on a nightly basis. Grantham averages about 16 points and six boards a game; Thomas is at about 12 points and nine rebounds per contest, plus almost two blocks an outing.
And both tall Tigers are making at least 67 percent of their shots on the season.
If that sounds like a bad matchup for Florida — which is shaky at best on the inside, and will be until the late-January return of John Egbunu and debut of Isaiah Stokes — that’s because it is. Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, and Gorjok Gak are going to have their hands full with Grantham and Thomas, and should Egor Koulechov be rotated onto them as part of Florida’s four-guard lineup, he’ll probably require help.
But Clemson isn’t particularly good at defending the perimeter or shooting threes, and so there’s a clear path to victory for the Gators, too: Shoot and make a bunch of triples, and things will probably work out.
Probably, Florida won’t actually follow that game plan. A week ago in Newark, against a rugged Cincinnati team, Florida eschewed threes as much as it could, hunting for better shots rather than triggering quick triples, and found an offensive rhythm as a result.
And that’s probably a more sustainable approach than the flurries of threes that the Gators dropped on foes in the early weeks of the year — especially because it also produced one of Florida’s finer defensive efforts of the season.
Another game like that one against the Bearcats, and Florida’s early-December swoon will look more like an aberration by day’s end.
Another game like the ones they played against Florida State or Loyola of Chicago, though, and the Gators might find themselves to be mincemeat for some hungry Tigers.