The Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s 2020-21 season has been many things, but most of all trying.
From the moment that the college sports industry lurched back into motion amidst a pandemic, it was a certainty that nearly every team would be swimming upstream against a dangerous pathogen and strict protocols. From the second that Keyontae Johnson collapsed to the floor in Tallahassee, Florida’s balance has been irrevocably altered, with its focus and fulcrum no longer able to take part in a season he was set to make revolve around what he could do on the court rather than the conditions that swept him off of it.
From the Gators’ win over Vanderbilt in their return to play after Johnson’s collapse, it has been clear that this team was good and driven — special — enough to overcome trauma and turn it to triumph. From the way the big wins and baffling losses have accumulated and occasioned the same old cycle of praise and potshots, you could be forgiven for believing that those with axes to grind or more naivete than knowledge lost sight of the incredible degree of difficulty for these Gators in this year.
But the most important thing on this Friday, the dawn of the Men’s Division I NCAA Basketball Championship, is that the Gators got from all of that to here, to a game against Virginia Tech that will either close this season or extend it.
We get to enjoy — or, well, not — this game. From my point of view, that’s wonderful.
Much has been made this week about Virginia Tech’s excellent offense, which under former Wofford mainstay Mike Young has as many cuts as a fight scene in a bad action movie. The Hokies run the motions and screens and plays of a modern basketball offense with precision, and Young earns a lot of praise for that, even if that sort of offense requires slowing things down at the collegiate level.
But the Hokies are not some ultra-efficient clone of the Golden State Warriors, despite the language of their offense being the lingua franca of pro leagues. Florida, despite late-season swoons, shoots very slightly better percentages from the field and distance, even if Tech might get “better” looks, and the Gators are about a point per 100 possessions better on offense over the course of the year.
That can be chalked up to having more efficient scorers inside and generally limiting threes to those who can make them outside. Keve Aluma is the Hokies’ primary paint presence, and he’s a force who can also step out to make threes, but he shoots 53.4 percent on twos; Colin Castleton, by contrast, has not made more than three field goals in his last four games, but is still shooting 58.5 percent inside the arc.
Florida also allocates the lion’s share of its threes to Tre Mann, Noah Locke, and Tyree Appleby, all of whom shoot at least 36 percent from deep. No other Gator shoots even 31 percent from distance — but the rest of the roster combined has fewer attempts than Locke does. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has seen point guard Wabissa Bede make just 12 of 49 threes on the season, a grievous misallocation of shots especially given that he has five teammates hitting 34 percent of their threes or better and two — Hunter Catoor and Naheim Alleyne — above 40 percent.
Yet Alleyne is also a fairly inefficient player because he’s been woeful inside the arc, shooting 36 percent on twos. Bede, too, is at just 45 percent inside — he’s very much a distributor for the Hokies, albeit one with a higher turnover rate than assist rate. If he and his teammates can get it to Aluma or Tyrece Radford, an superb finisher, they’ll probably score efficiently; if not, and Florida’s array of presses and zones is successful, Virginia Tech could really struggle to put points up.
For Florida, scoring may mostly be a matter of giving Mann the ball and getting out of both his and its own way. The Gators cough the ball up on more than a fifth of their possessions, and though Virginia Tech isn’t particularly good at forcing turnovers or generating steals and rarely runs in transition, preferring to defend against offensive boards, Florida’s best offense also still comes in transition, and the Gators getting ahead of themselves and scuttling scoring chances would be giving away golden opportunities.
Of course, Mann could also just continue his supernova stretch and render most analysis moot. He’s scored 21 or more points in his last four starts and 19 or more in his last five, with his 30-point outburst against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament only rendered relatively inconsequential by the Vols keeping him largely in check for the first 20 minutes of play. Don’t count on Virginia Tech’s smaller guards — Alleyne, who plays as a third guard or smallish small forward, is just 6’4”; Bede (6’1”) and Radford (6’2”) are even smaller — to be able to do that.
This game, like many this season, may come down to how well Florida shoots, or how well it scraps if it isn’t shooting well. The Gators were often touted as the best shooting team in the SEC, but their distance shooting largely deserted them from a disastrous run-in with South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ drop pick-and-roll coverage onward, with just four games of 35 percent shooting from three or better in the nine contests in that span.
But Virginia Tech is not a team built for blowouts, and their notable lopsided wins this year have come against either wildly overmatched teams in relative track meets (Coppin State, Longwood) or, most notably, in an out-execution of even more glacial Virginia. Florida wants to and can run, and should get the possessions it needs to come back should it find itself in a hole early on in this game.
And Mann is likely to be the best player on the court. If he’s better than everyone else by a substantial margin, it’s hard to see him letting this team lose in his March Madness debut.
Florida 72, Virginia Tech 65
How to Watch
Probably, you’re not going to have too much trouble finding Florida-Virginia Tech, as it’s Friday’s first game and airs at 12:15 p.m. on CBS, meaning that a good HD antenna could catch this one even if you don’t have a cable or satellite provider.
But if you do have such a provider, and just want to watch the online stream, that’s available through the always wonderful March Madness Live. Simply log in with your TV provider’s credentials and you’ll be able to flip between all of the action from Friday’s first round.
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