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2007 NCAA Final Four Preview: Florida Gators

by David Mihm | March 29th, 2007

Starting Five:

G – Taurean Green (13.3 ppg, 3.6 apg)
G – Lee Humphrey (10.1 ppg, 46% 3P%)
F – Corey Brewer (13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.9 spg)
F/C – Al Horford (13.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.9 bpg)
F/C – Joakim Noah (12.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg)

Key Bench Players:
Chris Richard (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg), Walter Hodge (5.8 ppg, 1.5 apg, 51% 3P%), Dan Werner (9.1mpg)

How They Got Here:
First Round – Crushed Jackson State, 112-69.
Second Round – Knocked off Purdue in a closer-than-expected game, 74-67.
Sweet 16 – Escaped Butler 65-57, despite an off night, thanks to their size inside.
Elite 8 – Finally played up to potential and handled Oregon 85-77.

2007 Changes: Perspective.
The Gators’ story is well-known by now: every member of the Florida starting five, along with two key bench players has returned for 2007. Freshmen Marreese Speights and Dan Werner have been impressive in spurts off the bench, but neither is a significant contributor in the typical Florida game.

The only major change for the Gators has been the bulls-eye on their jerseys that comes from being defending national champions. Under the radar prior to their run to last year’s title in Indianapolis, this year’s team has had to adjust to football-sized expectations from the Rowdy Reptiles and the rest of the country. They’ve handled them impressively the entire season, save for a little 1-3 slide in mid-February, and even when they haven’t played their best, the Gators’ intensity is never lacking.

Billy Donovan has done an absolutely remarkable job managing this team and deserves mention as a National Coach of the Year candidate.

Strengths: Frontcourt Play, Perimeter Shooting.
Taurean Green is the floor leader for Billy Donovan, but 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 Al Horford have had the biggest impact for the Gators this year. Few teams in the country can match their intensity and skill around the basket, both in terms of rebounding ability and finishing plays on the offensive end. 6-9 Chris Richard off the bench is also a strong interior player that would start on any other SEC team. And the Gators’ “secret” weapon is 6-9 swingman Corey Brewer, an all-SEC defender and a terrific scorer who never seems to get the hype he deserves.

The Gators’ perimeter players (Green, Humphrey, and Hodge) all shoot the three at better than 40%, and even though Corey Brewer’s average isn’t quite as good (31%), he’s also a threat when he’s open on the wing. It’s simply impossible for opposing defenses to drop into a zone against the Gators, because so many players can shoot right over the top of it. And, as we saw in the Oregon game, trapping or double-teaming Noah or Horford only leaves Humphrey or Green open for a spot-up shot from beyond the arc.

Weaknesses: Perimeter Defense, Emotion.
As the defending champions, it’s safe to say the Gators do almost nothing poorly. They’re the most balanced team in college basketball (just look at the scoring averages of their starting five), with every player willing to make the extra pass for the greater good of the team. They’re explosive and athletic enough to get out in transition—as they frequently do—but are comfortable running halfcourt sets, too. They shoot free-throws well, with their lead ballhandler, Green, at 85% on the year. And even on their off nights in this year’s Tournament, the Gators’ experience from a year ago seems to inspire them just enough to get over the hump.

But again, looking at three of the five teams that have beaten Florida (Kansas, Vanderbilt, Tennessee) and the one that’s troubled them the most in the NCAA Tournament (Butler), the Gators’ consistent bugaboo has been the opponent’s ability to knock down the long ball. Even Oregon had plenty of open looks, but Tajuan Porter simply had his worst game of the year at an inopportune time. While he’s a huge asset at the offensive end of the floor, Lee Humphrey is a bit of a liability on defense. And Taurean Green at 6-0 has had some trouble with larger opponents when teams have forced the Gators to switch as the result of a high screen. This could be a real problem against perimeter-oriented UCLA.

And although no Tournament opponent has taken advantage of it yet, Florida’s raw emotion can be a double-edged sword. Noah in particular fuels the Gators’ fire with his exuberant antics, and Brewer and Horford often display their excitement as well. There is the risk of being too fired up in the early-going, however, and being drained late in the game. And of course the untimely technical foul on Noah may be just around the corner—Billy Donovan has already had to pull him to the bench on more than one occasion this year to calm him down. If UCLA, Georgetown, or Ohio State is able to frustrate Noah to the point where he becomes a distraction (which happened in a bad loss to LSU earlier this year), we may see Albert E. Gator and the rest of the Rowdy Reptiles shaking their heads in disbelief.

Crunch Time Strategy:
Because of the Gators’ balance, they don’t really have a go-to player. And because they haven’t won a nailbiter where their opponent hasn’t put them on the free throw line, it’s a bit difficult to know for sure what they’ll do in a potential one- or two-point game. A Corey Brewer drive or pull-up is always a good option, particularly against UCLA where he’ll be defended by a much shorter player. Teams will probably key on Lee Humphrey because of his uncanny ability to hit big shots, which may leave Taurean Green open. Regardless, the Gators will probably start their final play with more time left on the shot clock than most teams, in order to give Noah and Horford a chance to clean up any miss.

Prospective Matchups:
The Gators match up with UCLA about as well as any team has all year. Look for Billy Donovan to switch Corey Brewer, his lock-down defender, over to guard Arron Affalo, particularly if the Bruins’ All-American is hot early. That means Lee Humphrey will need to step up in a big way against Josh Shipp, who’s been shooting quite well lately. Taurean Green vs. Darren Collison will be fun to watch at both ends of the floor. Collison averages better than two steals a game, but if he gets them against Florida, they’ll likely come on interceptions rather than pickpockets of the sure-handed Green.

Florida’s clear advantage against the Bruins comes in the paint, however, where they should go with every possession for the first four minutes of the game (at least). The sooner Noah and Horford can get Lorenzo Mata to the bench with foul trouble, the better. Mata is the only player on the Bruins who can challenge those two defensively, though 6-8 Alfred Aboya and 6-8 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might be a little quicker on offense than players Horford has seen so far. Though neither has the scoring knack of Purdue’s 6-7 Carl Landry, remember that the Boilermakers’ senior had a big game against the Gators (18 points, 10 rebounds) two weeks ago.

Because of their frontcourt size, the Gators would prefer a game with Ohio State, where they have a clear advantage at the 3 and 4 spots, rather than Georgetown. Remember that the Gators blew out Ohio State at the O’Connell Center back in December, albeit with Greg Oden at about 60%. Still, the Buckeyes’ big man would have a hard time avoiding foul trouble against two high-caliber frontcourt players. The Gators and Hoyas are evenly matched, as I wrote yesterday, with Brewer vs. Jeff Green potentially one of the best individual battles of the Tournament. Al Horford might be a bit too bulky to cover DaJuan Summers or Jeff Green on defense, but would have a real post-up advantage at the offensive end of the floor.

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