No. 1 Florida just wrapped up a perfect 18-0 stretch in SEC play and has emerged as a tournament favorite. The big reason for this success is how well the Gators play on the defensive side of the ball.
Prior to Saturday’s win over Kentucky, Florida was No. 5 in the nation in points allowed. The Gators hold their opponents to 58.2 a game. While that stat is impressive, it only tells a portion of why Florida is so tough to score on.
The Gators can be quite aggressive as they like to play a full-court defense that traps and forces turnovers. Guarding players 94 feet from the basket can be hazardous as the opposing team can leak out and score transition buckets. Florida, however, seems to have mastered it.
Here, two Gators trapped a Wildcat underneath his own basket. The baseline acts as an additional defender and the Kentucky player is virtually triple-teamed.
A similar half-court trap can be seen here.
The Kentucky ball handler can barely be seen up top as he is shadowed by two Florida players. He has to get rid of the ball in a desperation pass. In both cases the Kentucky player is forced to make a rash decision in an area of the court that could lead to easy points off turnovers.
It looks great on paper but these traps are difficult to execute. One, you must have the right personnel to pull these traps off. The Gators do with athletic guards. Two, you must have players with experience so they can keep containment of their man and not let the offense leak out. The right spacing and positioning is not something that can be learned as freshmen. See Kentucky as exhibit A. Florida has experience with four seniors making up the core of its rotation. Three, you need depth as a full-court defense is exhausting. Florida practically plays seven starters giving two players off the bench starter minutes. Patric Young, Florida’s best player, only sees 25 minutes a game. That is a big key to keeping your star center healthy and productive.
The result of all the traps and full-court pressure is an impressive turnover margin. The Gators are No. 29 in the nation (out of 349) in that category and force 14 turnovers a game. That’s exactly what Florida did to Kentucky Saturday forcing 14 while committing only 10 of its own.
If the Gators fail to turn you over they also create difficult shots in their half-court defense. Take a look at the spacing below.
All five Gators are on the same side of the ball but are in position to close out on an open shooter should the Wildcats reverse the ball to the other side. Kentucky wants to pound the ball inside to their best player, Julius Randle, and look at all the white shirts ready to collapse on him should he touch the ball. Its aggressive zone defense built to take away what Kentucky wants to do.
Contrast this with what Kentucky did defensively when Florida gets deep into the paint.
Look at the two blue jerseys just standing there as the shot goes up right in front of the hoop. The difference in team defense between the two schools is evident. Kentucky is a good defensive team but relies on their talent and athleticism. Arizona is in the same boat. Florida relies on a system its players have spent multiple seasons perfecting. The Gators are No. 29 in field-goal defense percentage as they keep offenses under 40 percent from the field.
In the second half, Kentucky began to figure some things out and made a run to get back in the game. Florida Coach Billy Donovan called off the dogs on his full-court press and went to what looked like a traditional 2-3 zone defense. Even in a traditional defensive set Florida maintained its aggressiveness. Look at the tight double-team that came towards Julius Randle despite the fact he was outside the paint.
Randle is now in a tough spot as splitting the double team off the dribble would be tough for a big man. Kicking the ball out back to the perimeter is not a joy either as the offense would have to reset with a depleted shot-clock. Florida is in great shape in either option. The zone worked as the Kentucky’s comeback attempt stalled.
Where Florida’s experience really comes into play is in its ability to defend without fouling. The Gators are No. 15 in fewest fouls per game averaging only 16. The traps and double-teams only work if the Gators don’t bail out the opponent with a cheap foul.
So at 29-2 Florida appears destined to earn a No. 1 seed and make a deep tourney run, or is there a weakness to their vaunted defense. There is.
Florida is dependent on forcing turnovers to provide points offensively. In its two losses, the Gators played teams who could break through the traps. Wisconsin beat Florida on November 12 and is No. 1 in the country in fewest turnovers. Connecticut defeated Florida by a point on December 2. UConn has one of the nation’s best ball handlers in senior guard Shabazz Napier. A full-court press is a waste against him.
If a team has the personnel to protect the ball, there are two areas where Florida can be exploited defensively. The Gators are an average No. 181 in 3-point defense percentage. The aggressive traps can leave a guy open on the perimeter. Having multiple players who can shoot the three is pretty much a must against Florida.
If bombing treys is not enough, Florida also can be attacked on the glass as it’s ranked No. 173 in defensive rebounds. Problem is teams that rely on outside shooting typically do so because they don’t have a post presence to get offensive rebounds. It will take a team that has both and those are scarce.
People have compared March Madness to rock, paper, scissors as it is all about the right match-up. The Gators are a rock in a college basketball world that’s mostly scissors. Even if a paper is out there, it will still have its hands full with Florida.