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Hoops Preview: Auburn vs. Florida

If hair quality translates directly to basektball quality, Alex Tyus may be able to cause Auburn some problems.

Let’s go ahead and call tonight’s first-round SEC Tournament game between Auburn and Florida what it is: potentially the final game of Jeff Lebo’s tenure on the Plains. Yes, Virginia, it’s kind of a big deal.

So for the first time this season, it’s time for a comprehensive hoops preview of tonight’s matchup.

Time and TV: 6:30 central tonight, on the “SEC Network” and most likely one of your local television stations; the AUfficial site has a list of affiliates carrying the game.

Stakes? For Auburn, no less than their coach’s continued employment. A win also keeps the ever-so-slim hopes of a winning season and last-gasp NIT bid alive. (A note about that NIT bid: even a run to the SEC final probably isn’t enough any more. A raft of mid-major regular season champions who have gone on to lose in their conference tourneys have claimed a big chunk of automatic bids to the three-letter tournament. Consecutive wins over Florida, Miss. St., and Vandy and a final record of 18-17 might be able to sneak Auburn in … but probably not. It’s more-or-less SEC title or bust.)

For Florida, the Gators are probably in the NCAAs even with a loss to Auburn, given that even the sad-sack resumes of teams like Memphis and Illinois are getting long looks. But in the event of Bubblepocalypse–bid thieves stealing spots out of conferences like the Atlantic-10 or C-USA, big runs out of teams like the Illini or Ole Miss–the Gators would have a long, long wait to Selection Sunday. They need this one.

So … how good are these teams, really? As we said when Auburn first drew the Gators in the opening round: there’s no real reason for the Tigers to fear this team. According to Kenpom, there’s virtually no difference between Florida and the two Mississippi schools, all three of which stand between the No. 48 and No. 51 spots in his ratings. In terms of efficiency margin, the Gators were sixth in the SEC at +.03 (1.06 PPP scored, 1.03 allowed). Kentucky they’re not.

Of course, all of those marks are far, far better than what Auburn managed. Just for fun, here’s the SEC tempo-free aerial:

As you can see, both teams are in the “good offense, bad defense” quadrant … but Florida’s offense is even better than Auburn’s and their defense isn’t nearly as poor. (Per-possession, Auburn finished with the worst defense in the SEC at 1.08 PPP allowed. Good work, Coach Lebo!) Auburn’s final efficiency margin was -.06, third-worst in the league. Kenpom? We’re down at No. 95, one spot ahead of Ohio Valley Conference runner-up Morehead St.

So: Florida isn’t in the upper echelon of the SEC and isn’t the kind of team Auburn needs to fear. But Auburn isn’t exactly the kind of team Florida ought to shake in their boots over, either.

When Florida has the ball: Auburn’s going to have to keep them off the offensive glass.

The Gators do a lot of things pretty well offensively: they don’t turn the ball over, they shoot very well inside the arc (50.6 percent), they hit most of their free throws. But what they do very well is rebound the basketball–36.8 percent of their misses, in fact, the 39th-best mark in the country. Overall the Gators don’t really shoot that well from the floor, because they’re miserable from 3–just 30.7 percent, 302nd–but between the offensive rebounding and the lack of turnovers, they just wind up getting off a ton more shots than their opponents.

As for how this matches up with Auburn, well … it’s not great. On the one hand, comparatively speaking, defensive rebounding is one of the Auburn defense’s “strengths”; they’re not good at it–producing steals and turnovers is the only thing Auburn’s defense is even above-average at–but at least facing a team that relies on the offensive glass is a lot better for Auburn than a team that relies on a ton of threes, sharp shooting, and getting to the line. If Auburn can just hold their own on the glass and force an abnormally high number of turnovers, which they’re capable of, they can neutralize the Gators’ usual FGA advantage. A spirited rebounding performance in the first meeting did just that.

Unfortunately, Auburn still managed to giver up 78 points (and 1.13 per possession) by sending the Gators to the line 40 times and giving up an even 50 percent from inside the arc. The Tigers will have to eliminate those problems (and force a few more turnovers) to hang with the Gators this go-round.

When Auburn has the ball: Again, ugly as it is to watch … Auburn’s offense is actually pretty good. 58th in the country good, only 17 spots behind Florida. That’s thanks to a glittering 2-point conversion rate: 52.1 percent, 34th-best in D-I. Florida’s good-but-not-great when it comes to defending the paint–they’re badly subpar at blocking shots–so that’s some good news. That the Gators’ greatest defensive strength is avoiding fouls and prohibiting free throws is another positive for Auburn, since the Tigers shoot free throws so badly as a team they don’t really cart if they go to the line or not.

So there’s some hope … but the difference between “solid offensive performance” and “victorious offensive performance” is likely going to be–as it always is for Auburn–how many of Auburn’s inevitable rain of three-pointers actually fall. The Gators were solid in the nonconference slate at defending the arc but collapsed in league play, finishing 10th in the SEC by giving up 36.2 percent from 3. Auburn didn’t have anything to do with that, unfortunately; they shot 7-of-29 from 3 in Gainesville.

The bottom line is that Auburn should have enough open looks–the Gators also don’t force a particularly high number of turnovers–and it’s just going to come down to whether they hit them or not. I’d suggest taking more of those looks from inside rather than outside the arc, but that ship obviously sailed a long time ago.

Intangibles: OK, maybe it’s disingenuous to say “outside of his three SEC Tournament titles” … but seriously, outside of his Oh Four-fueled three SEC Tournament titles, Billy Donovan hasn’t had a ton of success at the SEC tourney, going 8-10 overall with any number of flameouts against West division underdogs from LSU, Alabama, and, yes, Auburn (who’s gone 2-1 against Donovan at the SEC tourney). Again: this program is not Kentucky.

However, Auburn’s program is Auburn, and this year that’s meant beating all of one SEC opponent away from the Beav … that being horrible, horrible LSU by four. The Tigers’ total road/neutral record for 2009-2010? 3-11, with the other two W’s coming over IUPUI and Alabama A&M. Losses include Missouri St., Central Florida, and four different SEC West teams. Just sad.

Prediction? I think it’s going to be close. I think Auburn will give great effort. I think we will, as usual, be proud of how much they have given at the final whistle.

But predicting a win means predicting that Auburn will shoot accurately for 40 minutes away from home; will stifle one of the SEC’s best offenses despite having its worst defense away from home; will beat a clearcut better team, away from home. They haven’t done that a single time all season; why would you predict them to do it now?

Yes, Auburn could win. But it will be a surprise, even to me. Sorry.

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