It’s a five-hour drive from Lubbock to Dallas — and one can rest assured that thousands of Texas Tech fans made that drive, or one from somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, to see Saturday night’s game between the Florida Gators and their Red Raiders in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament (~8:40 p.m. Eastern, TNT or March Madness Live or Hulu or CBS All-Access or Fubo — you have options, in other words).
Most Florida fans probably didn’t make that same trip, what with the Gators playing in yet another NCAA Tournament and not the program’s second in a decade and playing somewhere other than their home state a year after getting to bus to Orlando for games and having been one of the nation’s favorite upset picks prior to their first-round rout of St. Bonaventure on Thursday.
Florida will thus probably be playing in front of a hostile crowd on this night.
That hasn’t hurt them all that much this season.
This Florida team has one of the finer road records in program history. It beat Gonzaga in Portland, Cincinnati in Newark, and Kentucky at Rupp Arena. It won road games at talented Texas A&M and Missouri teams over the span of four days. It nearly took down Duke at a neutral site, too, and fought gamely against Tennessee despite the Vols fortifying Knoxville with renewed fan support this year.
And while Florida lost games on the road in baffling fashion, too — remember the losses at Ole Miss and Georgia? — there was a theory that flourished in the winter months that these Gators play harder and better away from home.
Against Texas Tech, they will almost certainly need to play hard and well to win.
The Red Raiders are led by the potent backcourt pairing of Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver, with Zhaire Smith serving as a great third wing complement. And Evans makes things go for Chris Beard’s team: Tech has lost five of the six games in which he has posted an Offensive Rating under 90, and an 0-4 stretch in late February featured three of those games and one he missed due to injury.
That injury helped sideswipe what seemed like an firmly upward trajectory for the Red Raiders’ season. Since his return, Texas Tech is 3-1 with a lone loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament, but has not won a game by more than 10 points despite Evans playing beautifully.
That’s mostly due to a suddenly leaky defense: The Red Raiders, No. 4 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency entering this Saturday, had sprung a leak down the stretch in Big 12 play, giving up better than a point per possession for seven straight games.
They shored that up in their first-round win over Stephen F. Austin, holding the Lumberjacks to just 0.87 points per trip.
But Florida presents a different sort of challenge.
The Gators got just 1.03 points per possession from their offense in an up-and-down game against St. Bonaventure, but also held the Bonnies to 0.83 points per trip despite calling off the dogs late in the game. And Florida could have scored more had Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen — a potent backcourt pairing in its own right — not shot poorly in the game, with Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov left to do much of the lifting when it came to scoring.
Florida is fast and athletic, too, and capable of stressing even a very good defense. And while Tech’s slew of tall wings comprise the bones of its good defense, the Red Raiders don’t have the classical rim protector that tends to give Florida’s drivers fits — and don’t have a singular post scorer to take advantage of the Gators’ revolving door of limited forwards.
This game, for Florida, is about as good a matchup as could have been asked for from a No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup — despite, y’know, it being against a Texas team in Texas.
All the Gators have to do is find a way to get out of the heart of Texas with a win.
Easier said than done.