This afternoon, the Michigan Wolverines will take on their biggest non-rival, the Florida Gators in the Round of 32 (5:15 p.m., CBS). I think I speak for every member of both fan bases when I say I wish these two teams were playing literally anybody else.
It’s not just my split fandom. It’s the fact that Michigan and Florida will now have played four times across the football and basketball post-seasons in just the last six years. Add in last year’s Jerry World Classic, and it begins to feel like these two fanbases can’t get away from each other - they’ve matched up in four consecutive calendar years. Let’s recap how things have gone:
- 2013 Elite Eight - The Gators came in as a 3-seed and the Wolverines a four. Michigan got hot early and never really let Florida back in the game. Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke combined for 37 points while Mitch McGary put up 11 points and nine rebounds against reigning SEC defensive player of the year, Patric Young. An inspiring defensive effort from Glenn Robinson against Florida sharp shooter Erik Murphy put a wrench in the Gators’ offensive plans. Michigan wins 79-59
- 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - Jim Harbaugh and co continued a recent tradition of obliterating the Gators, this time in Orlando. Jake Rudock was a scorching 20-31 for 278 yards and three scores while De’Veon Smith went above the century mark on the ground. DJ Durkin’s defense held the Gators to just one score while intercepting a pair of passes and keeping Florida under 300 yards of total offense. In Harbaugh’s lone bowl victory, Michigan wins 41-7.
- 2017 Jerry World Classic - Michigan’s tumultuous 2017 football season actually got off to a great start with a solid victory against what appeared to be a relatively promising Florida team in Arlington. The offense mostly sputtered but still got a 100-yard effort from Ty Isaac and another 78 from Chris Evans. Tarik Black and Nick Eubanks, two guys expected to have monster 2019s, combined for over 140 yards receiving. The defense balled out forcing five fumbles, recovering three, and sacking Florida quarterbacks six times. Jim McElwain’s offense was held without a touchdown. Michigan wins 33-17.
- 2018 Sugar Bowl - “When people ask who we are from an offensive standpoint, we’re pro-spread from spread mechanics. We’re no huddle. We don’t huddle ever,” Gattis said. “But we have a pro-style emphasis and one of the things with speed in space is we’re still gonna have a mindset that we’re an attacking offense, we’re also a physical offense. We’re not gonna go out there and dink and dunk the ball around throwing bubble screens and all that. We’re aggressive. We’re going to be fundamentally sound in the run game, we’re gonna be aggressive in taking our shots, we’re going to be aggressive in trying to put conflict on defenses.” Michigan hires Josh Gattis.
Now, the 2019 basketball teams are new foes. The familiarity stops at the logos for the most part. With that said, I think a good way to preview this game is to look at individual matchups. In a lot of ways, Florida is a very similar team to Michigan. They somehow play even slower than the Wolverines, only have one true reliable ball handler, and are led by a pair of inconsistent wings that are as likely to drop 25 points in a game as they are seven. Let’s get to it.
Zavier Simpson vs Andrew Nembhard - Like Simpson, Nembhard is the straw that stirs the drink. While both teams run plays for other weapons, both Simpson and Nembhard will do a workman’s load of the ball handling. The Gators’ freshman is 6’5 and averages eight points with five assists per game. He’s most famous for drilling the game winner against LSU in the SEC tournament - a win that put the Gators into the “Big Dance” to begin with. Nembhard’s game is very similar to Zavier’s. For starters, he cuts his teeth with his defense. While Z relies on his quickness and anticipation, Nembhard leans on his length and defensive versatility. You’ll likely see him spend time on all of Michigan’s perimeter weapons and maybe even some time against Brazdeikis.
Nembhard is incredibly methodical on offense, just like Simpson. The Gators rank 346th in pace of play and only about a third of their field goal attempts come in transition. He also prefers to get to the rim, just like Simpson, and has a funky jumper that’s not particularly quick off the dribble... just like Simpson. He only averaged about two turnovers per game, but the Gators as a team rank 136th in turnover percentage. Getting the young Gator guard rattled early - and getting the ball in the hands of his more turnover prone teammates - will be key for John Beilein’s group.
Jordan Poole vs KeVaughn Allen - Poole and Allen are near spitting images of each other. They both have NBA athleticism, range from anywhere on the court, and the inexplicable ability to disappear for long stretches of time. While neither enters this game on a particularly hot run, they both can get hot in a hurry. Allen dropped 31 on 16 shots from the field against Texas A&M. He scored 21 in overtime wins against tournament teams LSU and Ole Miss. Throw in a 35-point effort the last time he faced a B1G team in the NCAA tournament, and you start to see why his raw numbers don’t tell the whole story. Allen can get hot quick, and Poole needs to stay engaged early to prevent that from happening.
Like Jordan, Allen will struggle with his handle at times, particularly when he’s forced to go East-West. Both guys have a tendency to become disengaged from the offense for stretches that are far too long. Poole has 16 games of single-digit shot attempts while Allen has 15 in one less game played. This game could come down to which one of these guys find their magic.
Ignas Brazdeikis vs Keyontae Johnson - Johnson and Iggy may be the most fun matchup to watch on the floor tonight if you like old school basketball. These guys are tough as nails. While Iggy is arguably the Wolverines’ best, most consistent offensive option, Johnson contributes in other ways. The 6-foot-5 freshman had a double-double against Nevada, and has been on a real tear recently. In his last four games, Johnson has lines of 10-10, 16-10, and 20-12. Against LSU he dished four dimes and managed four steals as well. When he’s on, he can be a real stat-sheet stuffer.
Keyontae is an athletic monster. He skies for rebounds over guys bigger than him, and his wide frame makes him a load to move around the paint. He’s a tough matchup on both ends for Brazdeikis despite Iggy’s own powerful build and high basketball IQ. The defensive lapses that both he and Jordan Poole are prone to cannot happen against the Gators, particularly with an active Johnson. He tore Nevada up on offensive rebounds, putbacks, and cuts. He’s going to come at Iggy 100% for the entire game. In a lot of ways, he’s a little bit like Isaiah Livers, though more offense is run for Johnson. A streaky shooter, his 36% mark on on the year reflects a boom or bust potential.
Jon Teske vs Kevarrius Hayes - Hayes has started 71 games in his Florida career and if nothing else has been a model of consistency for a program that’s dealt with front court problems for the last five or so seasons. Over the last month of the season, he’s turned into the type of Super Sayian senior capable of tournament magic. Hayes, only averaging eight points on the year has scored in double digits three consecutive games and four out of his last five. Like Johnson, he’s gotten hot at the right time. Against Nevada, Hayes scored 16 points and blocked three timely shots. For those who didn’t watch, the Florida front court gave Nevada a unique look of problems all night long.
Teske and Hayes are relative opposites. Hayes is quick, though not particularly long. He’s seen a steady pattern of growth over his career compared to Jon’s relatively short ascension. Where Teske is great at protecting the basket, Hayes is better on the perimeter and switching onto ball handlers. I think there’s an opportunity here for the Wolverines. Nevada out-rebounded Florida 30-21 and hauled in 19 offensive boards. For different reasons, the Gators face the same rebounding issues that have plagued Michigan over the last two months. Hayes in particular is not a strong rebounder. He had just three against the Wolfpack, though two of his three double digit rebounding efforts on the year have occurred in the last few weeks.
Supporting Casts - This section is really Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks vs Noah Locke and Dontay Bassett. I mentioned earlier that these teams have very similar make ups, and the lack of depth is yet another indicator. I’d expect Florida to go, at most, nine guys deep today, but I think seven is where Mike White wants to keep his rotation. It’s unclear which Florida wing will come off the bench, but history suggests that Locke actually starts (meaning one of Allen or Hudson will come off the bench. Though White has tinkered with this all year). The freshman is a lights out shooter when he gets hot and is actually the Gators’ second leading scorer. He’s hit five or more threes on five occasions this season including 27, 22, and 17 point efforts against Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. He’s had a rough go of it in March with a 10-point effort against LSU the only time he’s scored double digits in the month. Some would say that he’s due.
While Locke is going to be the supporting offensive piece, Bassett will come in with the expectation of 10-15 minutes of high energy, active hands, and solid defense. He’s a big man version of Brooks. Against Nevada, Bassett had four points and three rebounds. His game sealing dunk at the end brought the Gainesville bar I was in to a frenzy.
Charles Matthews vs Jalen Hudson - I saved this for last because it’s definitely the most glamorous matchup in the game. While introducing the teams, I touched on the fact that the Gators and Wolverines both have a pair of wings that can be as maddeningly inconsistent as they are glowingly talented.
Matthews and Hudson both tested the NBA waters last year before ultimately returning to finish their degrees and college careers. Both guys had massive struggles for large portions of the season with Hudson’s coming at the start of the year and Matthews’ to finish. Hudson in particular had a baffling 2018-2019 season. At one point, things got so bad that he was pulled completely from Florida’s rotation. His scoring dropped from 15.5 the season before to 9.2 this year. Go back a couple months and that number hung closer to six. He’s scored in double figures three games in a row and eight of his last 10. Against Nevada, Hudson took over the end of the first half and again at the end of the game. His 15 points came at huge junctures in the game and prevented multiple attempted runs by Nevada. Matthews, not to be outdone, is coming off a red hot performance after dropping 22 on Montana.
Hudson vs Matthews is going to be very fun to watch. It’s rare to see NBA wings with similar size and NBA measurables with games that match up like this. Hudson prefers to shoot threes vs Matthews’ mid range game, but both guys can be difficult to stop at the rim when they get a full head of steam. I’m really excited to see how they bring out the dog in each other. For Michigan, Matthews needs to stay connected to Hudson’s hip. Like Allen, he is a guy who is much better when he gets involved early so that he doesn’t go shot hunting out of rhythm late.
Florida is a completely different team when Hudson and Allen are shooting well. I’d go as far as to say they’re probably a four or a five seed if the two of them hadn’t gone long stretches of the year playing legitimately bad basketball.
Tying it together, Floridas offense should struggle to score against the Wolverines. The Gators rank worse than 200th in both 2pt FG% and 3pt FG%. They struggle to keep teams off the boards, ranking worse than 300th in opponents offensive rebounding percentage. They’re also going to play into the Wolverines’ hands with a slow pace of play. Where the Gators excel is forcing turnovers and getting easy buckets to break up the flow of the game.
They keys for the Wolverines will be:
- Continue taking care of the ball - The Wolverines are top-5 in turnover percentage. Keeping the stat sheet clean there will force the Gators to set up in the half court over and over again. That bodes well for Michigan
- Stayed attached to Allen, Locke, and Hudson - Again, all three guys struggle with consistency but are all capable of winning this game on their own - particularly the two seniors. If Poole and Matthews are engaged defensively, that will go a long way in taking this home.
- Second chance points - The Gators are 302nd in defending the offensive boards while the Wolverines are 291st in crashing the offensive glass. Something has to give. Florida is undersized and very thin up front. Getting Johnson or Hayes in foul trouble early should lead to a highway to the rim for Michigan.
Dan’s Pick: Again, I won’t touch the actual scoring line here, but I do think the game goes over 123.5.