Late Wednesday, video of East Tennessee State’s open practice prior to the 2017 NCAA Tournament hit the Internet. “Florida, beware!” wrote SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell, a friend of Alligator Army. “Florida Gulf Coast isn’t the only Dunk City in Orlando,” wrote Sporting News writer Ryan Fagan, who took the initial video.
Never mind that Florida met Florida Gulf Coast during its original Dunk City run in 2013, and clipped the Eagles’ wings so definitively that Casey Prather had the best dunk in the game, or that Florida has cruelly ended Cinderella runs time and again. East Tennessee State is an interesting school name, and has a team with some actual game and a loquacious coach, so the national narrative can be that the plucky Buccaneers have a shot to upset the better-known and better-regarded Gators.
That’s all fine. I get that. Florida’s NCAA Tournament history is, at this juncture, relatively long and unquestionably successful, and the Gators making March Madness is consequently boring.
But I also don’t get spinning the Buccaneers into a dire threat.
Steve Forbes has crafted a good team out of virtually nothing, much as Chris Beard did with Little Rock last year. The Bucs knocked off Mississippi State, played Dayton and Tennessee and UNC Wilmington, and were the class of the Southern Conference, which featured exactly one top-100 KenPom team — East Tennessee State.
The Bucs’ lone win over a team similarly situated came at Mississippi State — currently just No. 93 in KenPom — and by two points. It required Bulldogs star Quinndary Weatherspoon to go 3-for-14 from the floor, and 0-for-4 from three, and senior point guard I.J. Ready to go scoreless and commit four turnovers.
Whatever you think of Kasey Hill, it’s also fair to note that he hasn’t gone scoreless and committed four turnovers since last season, and that that was the only such performance of his career to date. And if Hill were to play that poorly against the Bucs, Mike White could just lean on Chris Chiozza, as he has increasingly done.
ETSU has also done plenty of work from three this year — five Buccaneers have made 24 or more threes, led by T.J. Cromer’s 94 on 40.5 percent shooting, and all of those players shoot 36 percent or better from distance. Florida’s perimeter defense does a fine job of both limiting threes and forcing misses, though, and all of those Bucs shooters are under 6’6”, making it much easier for the Gators to guard them effectively with guards and small forwards instead of being taxed by a Luke Kornet-style big who would disrupt Florida’s defense.
And the Bucs don’t have a great big, period. Indiana transfer Hanner Mosquera-Perea is a serviceable interior scorer and shot-blocker, but Kevarrius Hayes is almost as efficient a scorer, and is a better shot-blocker and rebounder. Mosquera-Perea drawing fouls on Hayes is one scary possibility for the Gators, but Hayes has yet to be disqualified from a game since John Egbunu’s injury, as he has managed his fouls relatively well, and White has managed his minutes expertly.
It’s also not as though ETSU is without weaknesses.
The Bucs allow opponents to take nearly 40 percent of their shots from three, and are among the 10 worst teams in this NCAA Tournament field in that stat. While Florida isn’t a team of sharpshooters, the Gators do have five players with 25 or more threes of their own, and could take advantage of that.
ETSU does a good job of turning opponents over, forcing turnovers on 22 percent of defensive possessions, but is almost as generous on the offensive end, giving away 20.6 percent of its possessions. That figure is fourth-worst among NCAA Tournament teams that made the round of 64, and is a terrible portent for a game against Florida, which flourishes when it gets steals and runs in transition.
And, well: ETSU hasn’t seen a team anywhere close to Florida’s talent or performance level since early last season, when its third game of the season came at Villanova. The eventual national champions skunked the Bucs by 35 ... despite allowing a 12-0 run to end the game, and not scoring over almost the last seven minutes of play.
Playing this Florida team in Orlando isn’t like playing that ‘Nova team in Philly, but it’s the closest thing ETSU has run up against since — and Florida in Orlando is unequivocally a tougher task for the Bucs than anything else Forbes has had to prepare for over his two years in Johnson City.
Plus, Florida has seen literally dozens of teams at or above ETSU’s talent level. Florida has played 25 games against top-100 KenPom teams, and gone 17-8 in those contests, -- which is slightly better than ETSU’s 1-3 mark in such games — and has played 17 games against teams ranked above ETSU’s No. 64 mark, going 9-8 in those games.
But that 9-8 mark reflects eight losses to teams ranked No. 34 or better. Against teams in the band between No. 35 and No. 75, one that ETSU has been in basically since conference play began, the Gators are 9-0.
Florida should take — and very likely has taken — East Tennessee State seriously. The Gators should be focused on winning their first NCAA Tournament game in three years, and hellbent on wiping the acidic taste of two straight losses to Vanderbilt out of their mouths.
But while Florida could lose this game, the Gators also should not be on upset alert for any rational reason before tipoff. This would be not a likely upset, but an unlikely one.