In a sport where matchup advantages are blended with a battle of wills, it happens every once in a while where two vastly opposite teams collide and the enjoyment is simply sitting back and watching what shakes out.
The Tigers (12-6, 2-2 SEC) take on 17th-ranked Florida (14-4, 2-1) at 5 p.m. at the O’Connell Center, the first of three consecutive ranked foes and the second leg of four games in the last five.
Waiting for LSU in Gainesville is the best trio of guards it has faced this season in Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Brad Beal. The trio accounts for 45.9 of the Gators’ SEC-best 82.6 points a game and has combined to hit 41.2% from 3-point range (139 of 377), paced by Boynton’s league-leading 66.
That puts the Tigers’ backcourt on alert and seems to be an inviting challenge.
It’s not about keeping pace in the scoreboard for Andre Stringer, Anthony Hickey and Ralston Turner, or matching Florida 3-pointer for 3-pointer. Instead it all begins where it has all season for the Tigers.
“Offense will come because we’ll find what we need with good shot selection.” said Hickey, who comes off one of his best all-around games with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. “It’s all about playing defense for us.”
Added Stringer, who likely will draw the task of slowing down the mercurial 5-foot-8 Walker, “We have to force them into taking tough shots. They’re going to make shots and we have to know that. We can’t linger on that and have to be ready to give our maximum effort on every possession.”
Defending the conventional 3-pointer is one thing. The task facing LSU is a little trickier.
While many 3-point shooters roam the arc waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities, the Florida guards are just as likely to create a trey off the dribble. And if the defense gets too aggressive, any of the three can drive to the rim for easier shots.
“In the half-court we have to push them off the 3,” Tigers coach Trent Johnson said.
It gets more troublesome for LSU, though.
Not only can Boyton, Beal and Walker fling daggers from offensive sets, they are just as eager to unload from deep rnge -- and just as deadly -- on the fast break.
“We’re really going to have to do a good job of getting back and limiting transition baskets,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing if you attack off the bounce in transition, but they attack off the bounce and shoot the 3 in transition. They cause you a lot of problems.”
The problems come with deciding how to defend.
The Tiger guards have mastered transition defense, with all three adept at hustling back to limit cherry-picking opportunities.
Taking away fast-break chances is a major reason why LSU ranks third in the SEC in scoring defense (60.7 points per game) and field-goal defense (foes shoot only 39.2%).
Those skills will be stretched by the Gators, who lead the league in 3-point shooting (41.1%) and rank second in overall shooting (47.8%).
“Conventionally it’s a hard adjustment when you send your (three guards) back you to protect the rim, but with (Florida’s) range – we’re not talking about collegiate 3s but NBA – now you’ve got to take sure you cover the hole, but also sprint out,” Johnson said. “You sprint out with solid, sound closeouts and it’s not like you’re sprinting out to a guy who’s a catch-and-shoot guy. They all can put it in on the floor and break you down at the point of attack. It’s hard. It’s a big challenge, and their quickness is what really causes problems for you.”
Both of Florida’s frontcourt players are also double-figure scorers. Forward Erik Murphy (10.3 ppg) gives the Gators a versatile big man on the wing, filling the hole vacated by Chandler Parsons. And center Patric Young (11.4 ppg) – at 6-foot-9 and 247 pounds – will be a handful for Storm Warren and Malcolm White to contain.
But the key will be in the backcourt and LSU will have to rely on the kind of effort it has used often on the road this season for five wins away from home, including against a Rutgers team that handed Florida an 85-83 double-overtime loss.
“You have to have a tough mindset and play hard,” Turner said. “It’s tough to win on this conference on the road. The teams we’re facing are good teams and they’re playing at home and that makes them even better.”