Despite a 32-point performance from SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LSU defeated Georgia 68-63 on Thursday afternoon. Next up is a game against a very different type of team.
While Georgia relied on Caldwell-Pope the whole season, Florida is the epitome of a balanced squad. The 24-6 Gators won the SEC regular season crown with a 14-4 record despite injuries to key players like Michael Frazier and Will Yeguete. Four of Florida's regular starters average double figures, while the fifth, Scottie Wilbekin, leads the team in assists and is their finest on-ball defender.
While none of Florida's starters post a gaudy stat line (in fact, none average more than 12.5 points per game), each offers a different skill set. Junior Patric Young is a center in the college game. At 6'9", 250 pounds, he is probably undersized as an NBA center, but it's to Billy Donovan's benefit, as he will likely keep the talented rebounder and shot blocker for all 4 years of college. Young is not a central point of the Gators' offense, but he is an explosive leaper who can get second-chance points. He will also be a formidable presence in the paint for LSU's Johnny O'Bryant.
Senior Erik Murphy is a prototypical stretch 4 who has improved his shooting touch each year in Gainesville. This year, Murphy is shooting 53.4% from the field and 46.6% from three despite taking almost 4.5 long distance shots per game. If the Gators are willing to sacrifice some outside shooting for better rebounding and defense, they can insert Yeguete. Since coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery, Yeguete hasn't been playing much in the past three games. However, he now has an additional week of practice to get back into game shape, and he is a tenacious rebounder, grabbing 6 boards per game in only 21 minutes of playing time.
In the backcourt, Florida features seniors Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. Rosario transferred from Rutgers after the 2009-10 season to join a more competitive team. His scoring average has gone down, but his efficiency numbers have unsurprisingly gone up both seasons. On the other hand, Boynton has not played as well as he did as a junior. His field goal percentage is significantly down and he is only making a third of his three pointers.
However, Florida has the luxury of bringing in freshman Michael Frazier in his place. Frazier has made nearly half of his field goals, including threes, and if he comes in for Boynton (or Wilbekin), it means that at least four Florida starter will be at least 6'4". Against an undersized LSU team that routinely plays two guards under 6', these larger Florida line-ups should thrive, particularly since the team doesn't have to trade size for speed. All of the guys in Florida's rotation are elite athletes besides Murphy, and Murphy still moves very well for a 6'10" player.
For LSU to have any chance to win, they will have to play their best game in the past four seasons. It's as simple as that. Florida is an elite team. According to Ken Pomeroy's statistical rankings, Florida is the best team in the country, despite their six losses. They have the number five adjusted offense and the second best adjusted defense in the country. They are also ranked seventh in the RPI. So far the Tigers' best win has been at home over Missouri, a team ranked 18th by Pomeroy but which doesn't even make the RPI Top 30.
To make matters even more difficult, the Tigers are coming off a tiring win over Georiga. Each LSU starter played at least 33 minutes on Thursday, and the game against Florida comes only 22 hours later. However, LSU still has a chance against the Gators, even if it's a small one. In the past two weeks, Florida has lost to Tennessee and a Kentucky team without Nerlens Noel, although both games were on the road.
And for such a talented team, the Gators have shown a surprising tendency to choke in the game's closing minutes. They gave up a six point lead in the final 56 seconds against Arizona and didn't score once in the game's final 7 minutes against Kentucky. LSU has had some great second half comebacks already this season, including on the road against Mississippi State and a 10-point comeback against Alabama.
Game coverage begins at noon central time on ESPNU.