Friday, March 13, 2009

Auburn vs. Florida: the preview


Time and TV: Approximately 9:45 EDT, 8:45 CDT, possibly later if the previous quarterfinal runs long. (Man, can you imagine if the Syracuse/UConn game had not been the last one of the night? How badly would that have screwed up everyone else at that tourney if it had led off the day's festivities?) TV is good ol' Raycom Sports, which kind of sucks for those of us in, ahem, out-of-market locations. Internet audio and live stats available here.

Stakes? As high as they can possibly be. Florida maaaaaaaybe has an outside shot at an NCAA bid even with a loss ... but probably not. Winner's alive, loser's dead. It's that simple.

The best two teams in the SEC? Possibly. On a per-possession basis, these were the second- and third-best teams in the SEC in conference play, and league leader LSU tailed off badly down the stretch. Though to be fair, so did Florida--the Gators lost six of their last 10 and lost their last five away from Gainesville, including a loss to woeful Georgia in Athens. But the Gators did fend off a desperate Kentucky team on the last day of the season, and after struggling with Arkansas for 25 minutes in last night's quarterfinal, eventually put the Hogs away by 15. In this sagging league, that's enough to make the Gators the hottest SEC team outside the state of Alabama.

The SEC's best offense. Both in terms of per-possession efficiency (where the Gators' 1.10 was a hair better than Tennessee's 1.09) and Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings, where the Gators rank 17th in the country, Florida boasts the league's best, most efficient attack. It's not hard to see why: Florida turns the ball over only very rarely (on just 17.3 percent of their possessions, best in the SEC and 18th in the country) and shoots it better than anyone else in the league--according to BBState, they ranked first in 3-point percentage and eFG and second in 2-point percentage in SEC play. If you're talking about an offense that takes a lot of shots and hits a high percentage of those shots, it's not all that surprising to find out it's a very, very successful offense.

So how does Auburn stop it? The Gator O does have two weaknesses--they don't get to the line at all (302nd in the country in FTA/FGA) and they don't grab a lot of offensive rebounds, either (193rd). That's music to Auburn's ears, since the Auburn defense's biggest weakness is sending opponents to the line, and 'Bama proved not so long ago how vulnerable the still-undersized Tigers can be on the defensive glass at times. If the Auburn defense can hold down Florida from the field and force a few more turnovers than the Gators would usually commit, they should be able to keep Florida in check.

That's exactly what happened the first time these teams met--Auburn hounded the Gators into a 5-of-23 performance from outside, forced 17 turnovers, and held Florida to just .85 points a possession. It would prove to be Florida's worst offensive performance in SEC play all season, and if Auburn hadn't given up 14 offensive rebounds, it would have been even worse.

Defensively, the Florida picture isn't so pretty. The Gators tied for fifth in league play in points-per-possession allowed, but there's a big gap between those top four teams (LSU, Auburn, Kentucky, and Carolina, in that order) and Florida, who finished 101st in the country in defensive efficiency. The Gators force a reasonable number of turnovers and they're actually good at steals (31st--which helps explain why they're 2-point FG percentage is so high), but man, 268th at defending the 3? 144th in defensive rebounding? 246th in total eFG? Why aren't they any worse than they already are?

Part of the answer to that question is pure, unadulterated luck: Florida's opponents have shot only 61.9 percent for the season at the free throw line, worse than the opponents of any other team in the country. Some of this is five games against Georgia, South Carolina, and Auburn--all three of them ranked 300th or worse--and I suppose a tiny bit of it might be the fans in Gainesville being particularly adept at distracting guys on the line ... but a lot of it is luck, luck, luck. (Auburn's 10-of-21 at home in the first meeting, for instance, was bad even by Auburn's standards.)

This is not the defensive profile of a team geared to stop Auburn. The Tigers are a weird offensive team in that--as you might guess by looking at their "guards galore" starting lineup--they shoot a ton of threes even though they're much better when they're shooting 2's. (Easy to explain why--a team that's not great at jump shots should only shoot 2's when it's Barber taking one or on drives to the basket. If you're going to take a jumper, might as well make it worth 3 points instead of 2, right?) They get nothing from the free throw line--they neither get there all that often (157th) nor, of course, shoot well once they get there--and although Barber's evolution into a MAN-BEAST on the glass is helping the offensive rebounding, Auburn still doesn't look all that hot statistically there, either.

So how did Auburn still end up with the fifth-best offense, per-possession, in the league? Primarily through not turning the ball over. Only Florida turned it over fewer times in SEC play than Auburn did. Auburn also shot pretty well on those (relatively) rare 2's (50.9 percent, 4th in the conference and 67th nationwide). Take that foundation and add just a little bit of competent three-point shooting and offensive rebounding on top of it, and Shazam! You've got yourself a competent and occasionally even explosive offense.

So, consider that Florida's defense

1. relies on forcing turnovers, but will be facing a team whose biggest strength is not giving them up

2. gives up 3's in bunches, and will be facing a team that puts up 3's in bunches and goes from OK-to-great when those 3's are falling

3. gets a big boost from not giving up points at the foul line, but will be facing a team that doesn't rely on those points anyway.

If I was a Florida fan, I'd be pretty worried right now.

The bottom line: In a nutshell, this is a match-up of good offense vs. good defense: Florida's going to look to flat-out outscore Auburn, while Auburn's going to look to bottle them up and hit just enough threes to surge to the victory.

On paper, I think that makes this a good match-up for Auburn. The Tiger D shut down Florida once already and is generally playing even better now than it was then. In the meantime, Auburn's offense is miles ahead of where it was in these team's first meeting--they're not likely to combine 10-of-21 at the line with 5-of-27 from 3 again--and seems likely to fare even better against Florida's defense than some others they've faced over the last few weeks (like three-point snuffing Alabama).

If both teams play at the level they've established over the last month and a half, Auburn wins. I don't think there's really much doubt about that. To boot, Auburn's very likely been preparing for Florida all week while the Gators have had to worry about getting past the Hogs. There's a reason the higher seed has gone 12-4 in the SEC tournament quarterfinals the last four seasons.

But, see, what I worry about is whether Auburn is going to plat at that same level. They've spent a week solid no hearing from everyone about how hot they are, about how they're the team to beat in this tournament, about how all they need is two wins to go to the NCAA Tournament. They haven't played a really bad game in more than a month. If you're the type who's not sure whether the Auburn that no-showed against Vandy and Ole Miss ever really went away, a game played as the favorite against a genuinely dangerous opponent after a week of potential distractions looks like a mighty fine time for that bad old Auburn to return. It's entirely possible Auburn comes out flat, and just as possible Florida seizes on that opportunity to build a 20-point lead and drift completely out of Auburn's sight.

But you know ... I think that Auburn really is gone. Even if the offense takes a little while to really get its head on straight--as in Tuscaloosa--the defense has reached the point where they can make up for it. It'll be a dangerous game to play with a team that shoots as well as Florida, but the guess here is that over 40 minutes, Auburn has enough advantages to make them count.

Prediction: Auburn 73, Florida 66

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