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Nevada vs. Florida: Three keys and a prediction

Martins
Cody Martin, left, and Caleb Martin{ } lead Nevada against Florida on Thursday. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

DES MOINES, Iowa – The Nevada basketball team plays Florida on Thursday in an NCAA Tournament. Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray breaks down the game with three keys to victory and his prediction.

No. 7 Nevada (29-4) vs. No. 10 Florida (19-15)

When: Thursday, 3:50 p.m. (Pacific time)

Where: Wells Fargo Arena (16,110 capacity)

TV/Radio: TNT/94.5 FM

Online: NCAA.com/MarchMadnessLive

Betting line: Nevada by 2; total of 133.5

Three keys for Nevada to win

1. Pace without mistakes: Florida wants to play slow. Nevada wants to play fast. But the Wolf Pack wants to do so without making too many mistakes. Nevada has done a terrific job of avoiding turnovers during Eric Musselman’s entire tenure, including this season when the Wolf Pack has turned the ball over just 10.2 times a game, which ranks 13th in the nation. Nevada must take care of the ball because it doesn’t shoot well enough to have a good offensive night if it gives the ball away 15-plus times, and the Wolf Pack can’t rely on getting to the free throw line (its bread and butter on offense) in an NCAA Tournament game, where more physical play is usually allowed. If this game turns into a grind, it’s advantage Gators, who play with the eighth-slowest pace in the nation. Florida forces a turnover on 22 percent of its opponent’s possessions, which ranks 17th in the nation. So this is strength against strength, and the most important key of the game. If Nevada can’t take care of the ball, it’s not going to beat Florida. If Florida can’t create turnovers, it’s going to struggle to keep up with the Wolf Pack.

2. Keep Gators off offensive glass: Florida has been out-rebounded this season (by 0.6 boards per game), but that can be deceiving since the Gators play in the physical SEC, a good rebounding conference. Florida is a solid offensive rebounding team, grabbing 29.5 percent of its misses (80th in the NCAA). With the Gators shooting just 42.7 percent from the field, there should be plenty of offensive rebounds to field. Nevada is a good defensive rebounding team, grabbing 78.7 percent of opponent misses, which ranked 12th in the nation. Florida isn’t an overly big team, with nobody grabbing more than 6.3 boards a night. Center Kevarrius Hayes (6-9/227) is Florida’s best offensive rebounder at 2.8 offensive boards per game. Forward Keyontae Johnson (6-5/225) is second at 1.9 per game. Those are the guys Nevada must keep off the glass to limit Florida to one shot per possession, which will be important in making the first key come true. Nevada needs a stop and a board to push the ball.

3. Defend the three: Florida is a streaky 3-point shooting team, although that doesn’t mean it is gun shy from beyond the arc. The Gators average 24.4 3-pointers per game, with 43.4 percent of the team’s shots coming from three (65th in the nation). Florida doesn’t get to the free throw line very often, so the 3-point shot is a big part of its offensive arsenal. The hitch here is Florida doesn’t shoot the three very well, making just 33.5 percent of its shots from beyond the arc (221st nationally). The Wolf Pack needs to run Florida off the 3-point line and make the Gators put the ball on the floor. Florida isn’t great inside the arc, either, shooting 49.7 percent there (200th in the nation). In Florida’s 19 wins this season, it has made 36.3 percent of its threes. In the Gators’ 15 losses, they’ve made 29.9 percent of their threes. Like Florida, the Wolf Pack can be streaky from three. And while it’s stating the obvious to say the team that shoots the 3-pooint shot better Thursday will end up on top, the stats back that up.

Prediction

Nevada 68, Florida 64: I don’t love this matchup for Nevada because Florida can muck up a game and keep things in the low 60s. Those kinds of teams – like San Diego State – haven’t been great for Nevada this season. In the Wolf Pack’s four losses, Nevada has been held to 56, 57, 58 and 76 points. Outside of that last game – which was to Utah State – the key to beating the Wolf Pack is to force a bad offensive game, which has been easier this season than last year when Nevada was an elite 3-point shooting team. Florida has the weapons to force that bad offensive night out of the Wolf Pack, but the Gators aren’t a great offensive team. They have to fight and scrap just to get to 70 points. That’s a key figure for Florida. The Gators are 13-1 when they score 70-plus points this season, the lone loss being a 79-78 overtime defeat to LSU, which is ranked 12th in the nation. This game should go down to the final couple of possessions, and Nevada should have just enough defense to get past Florida for its seventh win in NCAA Tournament history. Season record: 29-4

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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