Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Florida

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Florida (12-7, 3-4 SEC, #42 KenPom)
(15-10, 9-7 SEC, Round of 32 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Wednesday, January 26
6 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN2
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -9.5
KenPom: Tennessee -9

Torvik: Tennessee -7.5

I think that one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me is the University of Tennessee switching email addresses from the tidy “@utk.edu” to the monstrous “@vols.utk.edu.” Terrible? Obviously. But what this has done is:

  1. Kept me from accessing an email account I have no use for, aside from a letter of recommendation I forgot to save;
  2. Has erased an email I sent to a sportswriter about why Tennessee should hire Mike White after the 2013-14 basketball season.

Praise be for this disappearance into the digital ether.

Tennessee has not lost at home to Florida since said 2013-14 season and has impressively only done so once since 2011. The Gators have as many wins in Thompson-Boling since 2011 as Chattanooga and Austin Peay. Florida did beat a good (#26 KenPom) Ohio State team this year, but has also lost to Maryland (#82), Mississippi (#116), and most embarrassingly, Texas Southern (#174). If they get football every single year, Tennessee gets basketball. Seems fair to me.


Florida’s offense

Barring something surprising, Tennessee is going to go two consecutive seasons without playing a full-strength Florida side. Colin Castleton is Florida’s best player and most reliable scorer; you can’t tell the story of these Gators without talking about him. The story when he’s off the court is pretty fascinating (‘On’ is Castleton, ‘Off’ without):

Even when adjusting for 3PT% luck, it’s a pretty similar split: Florida is about 10-11 points worse per 100 possessions when Castleton doesn’t touch the court. The shot selection is perhaps the most interesting part of this:

  • Castleton On: 43.3% of FGA at rim/17.7% midrange/39.1% 3PA
  • Castleton Off: 29.9% rim/17.3% midrange/52.8% 3PA

That is a massive swing. Florida goes from generating what would be the 29th-highest attempt rate in CBB at the rim to 337th sans Castleton. It’s two completely unique and different offenses. If you’re like me and live in frequent fear of three-point variance, this is a little scary, but the people taking these shots for Florida are doing a great job at smoothing over potential fears.

Anyway, onto the show. Mike White made a big deal of changing his offense in the offseason to a more 5-out style where even Castleton was occasionally taking a three. Eric Fawcett is the main guy to go to if you want to learn about Florida. His observations are that Florida started out entirely pursuing this new 5-out style in November (when they started a 72-hour period of Ohio State’s athletic programs eating it on national television):

The problem is that teams began to adjust to Florida’s new style. In December, Florida lost a game that was understandable (Oklahoma), one that was…less understandable (Maryland), and one that was a complete debacle (Texas Southern). Shockingly, Mike White proved slow to adjust to others’ adjustments.

In January, Florida lost three in a row, then got back on the wagon until Castleton’s injury, then got smoked in a COVID makeup game by Mississippi. The good news for Florida: it isn’t really the offense’s fault. Torvik rates it out as a top-40 unit since SEC play started, and to White’s credit, he’s sort of turned his offense into a blend of what they used to run and what he wants to run.

The individual players you’ll see running these sets in the post-Castleton era (however long it lasts) are Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (10.3 PPG), Tyree Appleby (9.7 PPG), and Anthony Duruji (9.6 PPG). All three will take turns scoring and attempting to put up enough shots (also, points) to drag Florida to a road victory.

Fleming is the most versatile of the three. He’s horrifically inefficient on twos (53% at the rim, 33% on non-rim twos), but if you squint, he’s a player that can score at all three levels and does so somewhat well. Aside from having a truly insane and amazing name, Fleming is the co-secondary ball-handler behind Appleby along with Myreon Jones. My guess is that Fleming would like to think he’s at his best going downhill to the rim, but he’s been at his best as a shooter. 33% on threes is…not great, but also useful enough to make sense.

Appleby is the main ball-handler in Florida’s numerous ball-screen sets. You’ll see him run these with Duruji (the 4) or Jason Jitoboh (the 5) as the screener; Tennessee has to be prepared for Duruji in particular to pop out for a three. Without Castleton, Appleby has turned into Just A Shooter; of 27 shot attempts in Florida’s last three games, 26 were threes. Appleby is a career 35% shooter that is somehow better off the dribble than spotting up.

Last is Duruji, the best non-Castleton player on the roster and seemingly the only non-center who can score at the rim with any regularity at all. With Castleton off, Duruji is the best/most versatile frontcourt option the Gators have. He can score from outside and down low, sometimes coming from outside to the low post:

Beyond those three, you have a smattering of Just A Guys. Brandon McKissic is a Summit League transfer that mostly takes threes, but is nailing them at a 25% rate. Jason Jitoboh is an absolute behemoth (6’11”, 305) that is exclusively a threat at the rim. Myreon Jones takes a lot of shots but can’t hit them (44.1% eFG%, 30.1% 3PT%) well at all. CJ Felder is interesting (41.4% 3PT%) but is a minus defender that didn’t play against Mississippi due to a non-COVID illness.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Florida’s defense

Very similar to 2020-21 to the point that I could fart out last year’s previews and be done with it. They press after made baskets but don’t force a lot of turnovers with it; they exclusively run man-to-man defense; they almost always hedge or double on ball screens. I don’t know, Florida’s defense has sort of reached this stage of boring competency where they’re never bad and often fairly good but never a serious threat to be great.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case:

  1. Florida is excellent at forcing bad shots but really bad at rebounding them;
  2. Florida is excellent at forcing turnovers but their aggressiveness can either lead to foul trouble or easy twos, depending on the opponent.

No team is perfect by any means; even Gonzaga and Arizona and, yes, Auburn have their flaws. Florida’s just seem particularly potent. This year, the Gators have become one of the nation’s most three-averse defenses. Only 29.8% of opponent shots are from deep, which the graphic notes as the 12th-lowest rate in America. That’s a pretty notable jump for a team that did this for the first three years of the White era then backed off for the last three. To White’s credit, Florida surrenders one of the lowest rates of catch-and-shoot threes in America, forcing a ton of off-the-dribble twos and runners instead.

That’s good. Even the fact that Florida allows a ton of attempts at the rim – the 24th-highest rate in America! – is largely fine, because Florida (read: Colin Castleton) has done a great job at blocking attempts down low. The Gators sit 15th in the nation in Block% largely because Castleton has 42 of them.

The problem is that Castleton has 42 blocks, no other Florida roster member has more than 13, and Castleton is likely still unavailable. Even when filtering out garbage time and regressing for 3PT% luck, Florida’s defense is about 5.6 points worse per 100 possessions when Castleton is off the floor. I assume you’ll be shocked to hear what the biggest difference is.

  • Castleton On: 48.3% 2PT% allowed, 33.7% FG% midrange, 57.1% FG% rim
  • Castleton Off: 52% 2PT% allowed, 40% FG% midrange, 59.7% FG% rim

I think that there should probably be some sort of luck-adjustment function for midrange attempts as a majority of those are jumpers, but you get the point. Sans Castleton, Florida forces fewer turnovers (24.8% TO% versus 21.4%), fouls way more (22.8% FTR vs. 34.3%), and blocks far fewer shots (6.1 BPG when Castleton plays, 4.0 BPG when he doesn’t).

There hasn’t been a huge shift in shot selection in the post-Castleton era, but when your center options are a guy who commits 8.1 fouls per 40 (Jitoboh) or one that commits 7.2 (Tuongthach Gatkek), well, you know what’s coming. Florida’s given up a 62.3% hit rate down low while just demolishing anyone who touches the paint. Florida’s given up 20+ free throw attempts in three straight games and is averaging 20.3 fouls a game or, you know, a double bonus every half.

That’s after giving up 20+ FTAs in just five of their first 16 games. The other thing of note here: the rebounding. Florida still forces turnovers at a good rate, but their defensive rebounding this season is poor. KenPom Plus breaks down how a team ranks by their DREB% on shots at the rim, midrange, and from three. Florida: 255th in DREB% on missed threes. Tennessee: 48th in OREB% on missed threes. Don’t be surprised if/when Tennessee picks up three or four OREBs on deep-ball misses.

Again: still a good defense, still will force Tennessee into their fair share of tough situations. Yet I would be significantly more fearful of this unit if Castleton were on the floor.

How Tennessee matches up

Kind of a fascinating game theory matchup, no? One team that takes more shots from three than it has in program history playing a defense whose main goal is to funnel you inside the three-point line. This is the only team in 2021-22 Tennessee plays that’s remotely this focused on denying threes, but if you like encouraging notes, the next-closest opponent (so far) is Arizona. (Texas is ahead of Arizona, but that game hasn’t been played yet, obviously.)

To Florida’s credit, I think they’ve been really good at forcing turnovers in ball-screen situations. That hard hedge can force younger guards to either pick up their dribble and find themselves in a double team or make a bad pass to a person that’s not open. If you can work your way around a hedge, you should be able to at least get a shot up with the remainder of your possession.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Rick Barnes and staff have looked towards Oklahoma for some portion of their scout. Oklahoma got 14 points off of ten P&R Roll Man possessions in their 74-67 win, easily the most points anyone’s exploited Florida’s P&R coverage for. Shockingly, Tennessee hasn’t really done much of that so far, but of all teams, they found a hole in Alabama’s ball-screen coverage that allowed for several easy points down low. All of them were via Olivier Nkamhoua.

If Tennessee can draw that secondary defender (likely Duruji) out to the perimeter, Nkamhoua can use his body to create space either for two points or a foul.

Along with this, Florida had a shocking amount of trouble slowing down Daeshun Ruffin of Ole Miss on Monday. Ruffin is a miniscule point guard that jitterbugged his way to 21 points, all of which were either at the rim or the free throw line. Ruffin drew six fouls across 33 on-court minutes and it genuinely could’ve been ten if they imported officials from 2012. Florida fans seem terrified of what Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler could do to them. I say exploit these issues anywhere and everywhere possible.

Defensively…well, you have three guys to stop and only one of them is really potent at all three levels. Appleby has turned into Just A Shooter, and really, the entire team has. When you’re taking 53% of your shots from deep when a certain player is out of the game, that’s genuinely pretty wild. About 79% of Florida threes are of the catch-and-shoot variety, per Synergy.

There’s a couple of ways I think Tennessee could exploit this to great success; forcing Appleby and Myreon Jones into some really ill-advised kickouts when they touch the paint is probably my favorite. But, as usual, this game is going to come down to if you’re doing everything you physically can to make Florida’s deep balls hard, difficult shots. The Gators generate lots of corner threes; per CBB Analytics, they get off 9.2 a game, which is the third-most in America behind Alabama and, uh, Purdue Fort Wayne. Kickouts will happen; Tennessee’s just gotta be there to make them hard shots.

I’m of the opinion that you can do relatively little to control the outcome of an opponent’s three-pointer, but per the study you saw in Saturday’s game via Jimmy Dykes, I would imagine that being within 3-4 feet on as many shots as possible is a great way to maximize your potential for success. Frankly, if Florida is unable to hit 10+ threes in this one, it would take a serious overperformance elsewhere to win this game.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Which team attempts fewer mid-range twos? Florida has become even more mid-averse than Tennessee, a genuinely surprising turn for a team that loved mid-range twos not long ago.
  • Can Tennessee get one of Duruji/Jitoboh in foul trouble? The Gator backcourt doesn’t commit many, so forcing Mike White to use depth pieces he really doesn’t want to use would be ideal.
  • Who gets the higher-quality threes? Any team can barf up a bunch, but getting lots of open, catch-and-shoot threes isn’t easy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida put up 30 deep balls in this one, but if they require multiple dribbles or are well-guarded, you have to live and be comfortable with that defensive process.

Key matchups

Anthony Duruji vs. Olivier Nkamhoua. Nkamhoua could really use a good performance; it feels like the last time he stood out in a positive manner was the Mississippi game three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Duruji’s been struggling with fouls as of late, but is a very legit threat both inside and out.

Tyree Appleby vs. Kennedy Chandler. If Chandler forces Appleby to take a bunch of tough threes, he’s done all he can do; Appleby is gonna toss ’em up from deep no matter what Chandler does. On the other end, Appleby was a defensive liability against Mississippi but is typically better than that. Chandler needs to push the issue in the paint early and often.

Phlandrous Fleming vs. A Cornucopia. All of Justin Powell, Josiah-Jordan James, and Santiago Vescovi are currently averaging 8+ MPG at the 3, so who knows. Fleming is the only three-level scorer I see on the Florida roster, though he’s not that efficient.

Three predictions

  1. Multiple times, I think about Alabama somehow losing to both Georgia and Missouri in a two-week span and start laughing;
  2. Florida goes on a run of 2+ made threes and follows it with 6+ consecutive misses;
  3. Tennessee 72, Florida 62.

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