The Florida-Louisville Elite Eight showdown is providing us with one of the classic storylines in all of sports as Billy Donovan takes on his former coach and mentor Rick Pitino in a winnable game for either team. Here are the five key matchups and how Florida can take advantage of them for the win.
Florida's First-Half Offense vs. Louisville's First-Half Defense
Through the first three games of the NCAA tournament, Florida has put up an average of 37.6 first-half points, and it’s those early leads that have helped the Gators in all three victories. Imagine the edge it could give them against a Louisville team not as dangerous offensively as Marquette or Virginia. Obviously, since it sticks to the Gators' current trend, it seems simple enough.
Not so fast, though.
Louisville has really been the anti-Florida in this regard. While it has managed to get out into some early first-half leads, it’s been more the result of solid early game defense than offense. Through the tournament, the Cardinals are holding their opponents to 22.7 first-half points on 32 percent shooting from the field.
This is going to be a matchup of pace, and Florida really has the advantage. Florida needs to continue utilizing its momentum and impose its style of game onto Louisville. If the Gators can force a quicker, uncomfortable pace, they'll force the Cardinals to match them offensively, and that's not something Louisville has proved it can do consistently.
Florida Forward Patric Young vs. Louisville Center Gorgui Dieng
Dieng is Louisville’s leading shot-blocker at 3.2 for the season and has amassed 12 blocks in the tournament so far. He’s got great length, is a defensive hawk around the basket and responds quickly to driving bodies going for the easy layup.
Since a bulk of Florida’s scoring has come inside as of late, this is a rather important job. (Note: If the perimeter shooting gets hot, this becomes a little less important.)
However, Young is the guy that can absorb Dieng in the post. If he can keep him from running free, guards Bradley Beal, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton can use their quickness to get around defenders and to the basket without having to worry about Dieng blocking them at the rim. Young has done a great job on his matchups so far (Kyle O’Quinn and Davante Gardner), but Dieng’s height and length make this a greater challenge.
Dieng is more athletic than strong, so this isn't like the previous strength battles we've seen in the paint.
Young's footwork in the post is a bit raw, and the weaknesses are more obvious in these athletic battles than when the two big men are just muscling each other for position. Regardless, the best approach—which will take some foresight on Young's part—is to keep forcing Dieng to the weak side of the court so his guards can generate some offense unobstructed.
Florida's Half-Court Offense vs. Louisville's Half-Court Defense
The one play that represents this best is in Thursday night's game when the bigger, longer Todd Mayo poked the ball away from Walker in the half-court offense. Mayo's length managed to disrupt Walker’s vision and passing opportunities, essentially creating a turnover that gave Marquette another opportunity to get back into that game.
While not comparable to the 6”4’ Mayo, Louisville has a slight size advantage in its backcourt. It’ll be a challenge for Florida’s smaller guards to pass around that kind of length if the ball stops.
Obviously, Florida's speed is a valuable weapon so playing to the fast break and transition game is the best way to avoid this.
However, when in the half court, the Gators need to be more thoughtful with their passes and less gun-shy with their shooting (Erik Murphy). If the open shot is available, they need to take it and not send it sailing to the corner where a guard will get trapped.
Florida's Miscues vs. Louisville's Resilience
Louisville is a sneaky team that can climb back into a game if you let it. This season, the Cardinals put up 40-plus points in a second half to fuel a come-from-behind win against Villanova. This is relevant since Florida nearly let Marquette inch back into that Thursday night game with a lot of miscues, bad shots and questionable clock management.
At some point, Donovan did seem to correct this issue as the half went on, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth mentioning. The players on the court need to practice better awareness and have fewer mental missteps.
There were too many times towards the end of that game where the Gators forced shots early in the shot clock with a double-digit lead. The Gators seemed too accustomed to playing an up-tempo offense and never felt the need to slow the game down. Those mistakes alone gave their opponent a few bonus possessions to close the gap.
Donovan needs to better prepare his players to adjust to the game's circumstances. Pitino is the exact kind of coach that knows how take advantage of those mistakes.
Donovan vs. Pitino
This matchup is so obvious it's really not worth mentioning. However, this is one of those moments where we have a real chance of seeing a student overcome the teacher.
Donovan has his team clicking right now, and his team's talent is destroying the competition. With great momentum and Donovan's preparation, it's hard to imagine even the great Pitino could stop a force as strong. It would be shocking to watch a team playing as well as the Gators are right now stumble at this point in the tournament.