When their men’s basketball teams have met on the court in the last few years, Florida and Alabama have produced some significantly odd games.
In 2019, the Gators smacking Alabama by 18 in Coleman Coliseum was part of a late-season swoon by the Crimson Tide that led to the firing of Avery Johnson at season’s end. In 2020, Alabama seemed poised to return the favor, leading Florida by as many as 22 points in the first half in Gainesville, only for the Gators to roar back and win a 104-98 thriller in double overtime. And in probably the least surprising of the three results in 2021, Alabama pulled away from a cold-shooting Florida in the second half for a 15-point win in Tuscaloosa in a game that saw both teams pull down 15 offensive rebounds.
This year’s game between the teams (7 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN) has enough elements of uncertainty to produce another bizarre affair.
Florida’s playing its first game in two weeks, after all, having not suited up for a regulation contest since a December 22 win over Stony Brook. A game scheduled for December 29 against Ole Miss was postponed because of COVID-19 issues for Florida, and as there’s been no reporting on which players contracted the virus, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether any Gator might be a bit more out of breath on the floor.
Florida has also played a number of very good games (its wins over Ohio State and Florida State were good ones against quality competition, and it has rolled through a number of lesser foes), lost competitive matchups with Oklahoma and Maryland, and dropped one true stinker, a loss to Texas Southern that suggests this team’s worst night makes it susceptible to nearly any team in America.
And while the Gators warmed up from three against Maryland and have made 27 threes in their last three contests after sinking just 14 in their first three games in December, consistency from behind the arc has been lacking, and presumed sniper Myreon Jones has made just four of his last 27 tries from distance.
But Alabama, too, knows well the pains of being reliant on the three. The Crimson Tide have been among the nation’s most three-happy teams under Nate Oats, and have been excellent when it works, going 26-7 a year ago while firing away and taking down both Gonzaga and Houston while hitting better than 38 percent of their threes this season.
Alabama has also lost to Iona, Memphis, and Davidson this season, with the Gaels limiting the Tide to just five made threes on a season-low 17 attempts and the Tigers and Wildcats surrendering Alabama’s 10 and 13 threes on inefficient totals of 33 and 36 attempts, respectively.
This team will continue to shoot threes — triples have made up more 43 percent of their shot diet in all but three games this year — but it is not particularly great at shooting them, making under a third of those tries. And the really potent part of the Alabama offense is actually inside, where nearly every Crimson Tide player, from slashers Jahvon Quinerly and J.D. Davison to forward Keon Ellis to big man Charles Bediako, shoots a great percentage because of quality looks generated by the five-out offense Oats employs.
Florida, by contrast, is a defense-first team that is reliant on transition and Colin Castleton for much of its offense — but one that does a superb job of both limiting threes taken and keeping percentages reasonable. Only four teams have managed to take more than 30 percent of their shots from three against the Gators — and stunningly, no team has hoisted more than 21 triples.
That efficacy at shutting down distance shooting has downsides, like a propensity to give up drives late in the shot clock, but Florida should be well-prepared for what Alabama wants to do on offense, and might be quite effective at preventing it.
It’s how the Gators handle the counter to that from the Crimson Tide — and scoring points in their own right — that should define this game and determine its victor.