Florida is now sitting in an area typical for NCAA Tournament "bubble" teams at No. 36 but can strengthen their case Saturday against North Carolina State in the O'Dome. N.C. State is ranked No. 85 and while that's not real high, it is the fourth highest ranking of Florida's non-conference opponents. That adds extra importance to this game.
N.C. State enters the O'Dome with a 9-2 record having lost to Davidson (67-72) and Marquette (65-68). The Wolfpack and Gators have one common opponent in Winthrop and their scores against the Eagles are virtually identical. N.C. State beat Winthrop 74-48, while Florida posted a 74-45 victory over the Eagles last weekend.
The Wolfpack are a big team and will challenge Florida's often spotty work on the boards. N.C. State has an impressive plus-seven rebound advantage over its opponents this season, while the Gators were beaten on the boards in both of their losses. Florida has an advantage when it comes to taking care of the basketball and forcing opponents to make mistakes. The Gators are plus-five in turnover margin while the Wolfpack is minus-two.
Individually N.C. State is led by the front court tandem of senior Ben McCauley and junior Brandon Costner. McCauley (14.2/8.5) and Costner (14.0/7.7) are both 6-9 and each is a threat to post a double-double on any given night. Costner also leads the team in assists (33) while McCauley has more steals (16) than any of his teammates.
Two other guys to watch as 6-6 wing Courtney Fells (11.3/3.0) and Tracy Smith (10.3/3.6), a 6-8 forward who is very productive off the bench.
The Gators take a five-game winning streak into the matchup and have averaged 85 points in those games. Florida of course is led by sophomore guard Nick Calathes who leads the Gators in scoring (15.7) and assists (6.7). Alex Tyus (14.2/6.8) and Dan Werner (10.5/5.0) are also scoring in double figures, though Werner has been struggling a bit of late. A real key for this team, however, is the productivity of the next three guys on the stat sheet. Chandler Parsons (8.8/5.4), Erving Walker (8.2) and Walter Hodge (8.2) make the Gators much more difficult to defend when they are playing at a high level.
Look for this game to stay close and the keys will be net rebounds, net turnovers and the Gators 3-point shooting. Of course, those will be key items in just about every game from here on in.
As of New Year's morning the top SEC team in the kenpom.com ratings is Kentucky at No. 23. Tennessee is next (29) followed by Florida and LSU (53). South Carolina (62), Vanderbilt (66), Auburn (69), Arkansas (73) and Ole Miss (90) give the SEC nine teams in the top 100. With Florida's strength of scheduling ranking a very low 271 it's clear all SEC games will improve Florida in that area. It also demonstrates the importance of a fast start in SEC play since the Gators open with Ole Miss, at Auburn, Arkansas, at South Carolina and at Vanderbilt.
Wolfpack Poses a Big Challenge
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