Gators-Hoyas: It's All About The Elbows

What's the key to this Friday's Georgetown-Florida game in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament? Read on for an in-depth analysis!

Billy Packer --- who has been assigned to call the Minneapolis Regional with Jim Nantz --- will provide some pointers right before tip-off in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, but the CBS analyst usually provides just four "Packer Points." Substantive game analysis demands much more than four sound bytes, so one needs a more expansive and creative way of looking at the showdown between the Gators and the school Billy Donovan shot down in the 1987 Southeast Regional Final as a Providence Friar, when John Thompson III's father commanded the coaches box for the Hoyas.

If you want a unique "all-purpose" key for this extremely attractive matchup --- one of the three five-star offerings among the eight regional semifinals (Villanova-BC and Gonzaga-UCLA being the other two) --- one word comes to mind: elbows.

Let that sink into your mind.

Elbows: The key to Gators-Hoyas.

See how that works on a number of levels? Let's elbow our way into an extended analysis of this contest.

First of all, Georgetown center Roy Hibbert --- a pivotal pivot player, to be sure --- has already proven in the NCAA Tournament that he can get flustered by pesky, active defensive pressure. In last Friday's first-round game against Northern Iowa, Hibbert --- holding the ball at the top of the free throw circle --- was bothered by pressure from smaller UNI defenders. He quickly lost his composure and swung his elbows, committing a key offensive foul that put him in foul trouble and nearly cost the Hoyas the game. If Hibbert is on his game, the Hoya center doesn't extend his elbows within a bent or lowered posture; instead, he holds the ball aloft with outstretched limbs. Facing the basket, Hibbert will hold the ball with two hands before laying the ball in or banking the ball off the glass; with his back to the basket, Hibbert will hold the ball with one hand (his left if he catches the ball on the right block, his right hand if he catches a post pass on the left block) as he scans the rest of the floor and sees if he has room to go one-on-one.

The point about Hibbert's elbows is that the Gators' team defense will want to emphasize quickness rather than power. Florida will want to create confusion for the Hoyas, instead of thinking they can win with brute strength. Yes, it's tempting to want to rely on Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chris Richard, and Adrian Moss to provide a powerful and big lineup against Hibbert. But if Billy Donovan plays too many bigs or puts too much energy into stopping Hibbert, the Hoyas --- with their Princeton sets and a roster of quick, rangy slashers --- will find holes in the Gators' defense. At the defensive end of the floor, Florida would be smart to play zone against their Big East opponent. You want to make Georgetown beat you with perimeter shooting, which has been the Hoyas' weak spot this year. That's a significant enough reason for going zone, but moreover, zone makes sense in this game because long-distance shooting is typically poor in domes. If the Hoyas hit their threes with any kind of consistency, the Gators should simply tip their cap to Georgetown. What the Gators can't allow is for Hibbert to get any kind of comfortable rhythm as a passer or scorer. It comes down to this: do you make a team beat you with their strength or with their weakness? That question nicely summarizes why Florida should go zone, and try to bother Hibbert instead of trying to punch him in the mouth. The Gators need to be much more like Muhammad Ali, and much less like George Foreman, in this game at the defensive end.

The second "elbow point" concerns Florida's bigs. If Donovan wants to use a big lineup, he should do so at the offensive end of the floor. It's on offense where the Gators can use their size to their advantage against a Hoya defense that is smaller, but long. The very kind of power the Gators won't be able to use on defense is precisely the kind of physical force Florida can certainly use on offense. Whoever isn't guarded by Hibbert can elbow Georgetown's Jeff Green into submission on the low blocks and crash the offensive glass. With good spacing, Florida can put itself in position to get a lot of weakside rebounds and get the second-chance points that are vital against the Hoyas. Second opportunities will make Hibbert exert himself that much more at the defensive end, enabling Florida's bigs to stay collectively fresh over the course of the game and tire out Hibbert down the stretch. The Gators can muscle past the Hoyas on offense.

The third "elbow explanation" refers to the areas on the Metrodome floor you'll want to pay close attention to Friday night. The elbows are, of course, the two corners of the lane at the edges of the free throw line, just over 15 feet from the basket. The elbow s will be precious pieces of real estate in this game at both ends of the floor.

When Florida is on defense, the elbows will be huge for two reasons: first, any team employing a zone --- as the Gators are likely to do --- must keep the offense from getting the ball to the elbows. If an offensive player cracks that part of a zone, he can shoot, kick out to the wings, or dump an entry pass to a teammate while the zone collapses on him. Secondly, the Hoyas' Princeton offense involves the elbows. If you watched any of GU's dismantling of Ohio State on Sunday, you would have noticed that John Thompson III will typically have a wing player stand near the elbow on the strong side. From this vantage point, he will have two options: find a teammate coming around to the wing on a curl for a perimeter shot (or just a pass that will initiate another series of screens and cuts), or find a back-cutter for a layup on a pass that goes right along the edge of the lane. Taking away the elbows will reduce GU's passing angles.

When Florida is on offense, the elbows will be just as vital. For one thing, the Gators will want to at least explore the possibility of using a high-low attack against the Hoyas. The concept of a high-low is simple enough: one player occupies the elbow, and another occupies the low block on the same side of the lane. If Billy Donovan --- as previously referred to --- wants to maximize the benefits of his team's size, he could use a high-low game with his bigs at the offensive end. This could accomplish one of three things: it could lure Hibbert away from the basket, it could create a lot of makeable 13-15 foot jumpers, or it could enable Florida to go over the top of the Hoyas' defense and neutralize Georgetown's quickness.

The elbows will also be key for Florida's offense because of Joakim Noah's tremendous diversity of skills, particularly his abilities as a passer and ballhandler. Since Taurean Green --- as a result of both his inconsistent play in the subregionals and his limited size going up against the Hoyas' guards --- will have matchup difficulties, there's a lot of merit to giving Noah extra ballhandling responsibilities against Georgetown. If Noah can get the ball around the elbows --- either off the dribble or as the result of a catch --- he could put himself in position to put the ball on the deck and use his speed to negate Hibbert's size and limited (though rapidly improving) footwork. And if Hibbert is able to stop his forays to the goal, Noah can --- from the elbow area --- occupy the spot on the floor from which he can find any of his teammates. Because the elbows are right in the middle of the halfcourt, between the areas where any position player normally plays (bigs take up the low blocks, shooters take the wings, and the point guard occupies the top of the key above the free throw circle), they offer a maximum of passing lanes and angles. Smooth pivoting would enable Noah --- or anyone else --- to enter the ball into the low post, hit an open shooter in the corner, reverse the ball back to the wings, or reset the ball to the top of the key. Gaining the elbows will enable Florida to keep Georgetown's defense off balance, and Noah --- as a "point forward or point center" --- could really create problems for Hibbert while freeing up Green, Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer for open threes.

So there you have it. Whether they're swung in frustration, used for rebounding, or viewed as precious pieces of real estate on a hardwood slab, elbows represent a towering key in a significant and very attractive basketball game. If the elbows are exploited properly at both ends of the floor, Florida will crash this Big East party in the Midwest and make its second regional final under Billy Donovan, who knows from his playing days how to beat Big East teams.

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