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NCAA Tournament Preview: Nevada faces tough task against Florida Gators

Nevada enters tournament as No. 7 seed

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at Utah State Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The 7th-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack face a tough assignment in the 10th-seeded Florida Gators in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 21, at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.

Despite a 19-15 overall in the SEC, the Gators are loaded with lenky, versatile guards and centers that pose as tough matchups for the smaller-sized Wolf Pack. Florida is battle-tested and took down the top-seeded– and 9th-ranked team in the country–LSU Tigers 76-73 in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Coming off a school-best 29-4 regular season record, Nevada came into the year with high expectations and haven’t disappointed. Nevada has not escaped the year unscathed tough, and conference opponents such as San Diego State and Utah State have gotten the best of the Pack. The Aztecs knocked off Nevada for the second time this season in a 65-56 loss in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals.

Nevada opened as 2-point favorites, but Florida looks to be its toughest competition yet. The Gators limit its opponents to 63.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting and rank 14th in KenPom’s advanced defensive metrics. Florida plays a tight man-to-man defense and will switch on the pick-and-roll with plenty of length on the floor.

Kevarrius Hayes is the defensive anchor down low for the Gators. The senior center plays up to his 6-foot-9 size, leading the team with 64 blocks while pulling down a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game. Hayes’ physical play down low let’s guards KeVaughn Allen and Andrew Nembhard to play the passing lanes and come up with steals to fuel points in transition. Both players totaled 68 steals this season to lead the Gators.

Generating offense consistently has been the Wolf Pack’s achilles heel, the Aztecs held them to season-low point totals in two games this season. The Gators’ feisty play on the defensive end will be a tough matchup.

Offensively, Florida averages 68.3 points per game, but they lack a true No. 1 scorer. Allen leads the team with 12 points per game and gets into the paint with a quick first-step. Guards Noah Locke and Jalen Hudson both average over 9 points per game. The squad generates most of its points down low. The Gators shoot just 33 percent from 3-point range as a team, but average just over 33 points per game the paint.

Florida’s struggles offensively can be used to the Wolf Pack’s advantage. They may look to zone-in on Allen by putting senior forward Tre’Shawn Thurman to hound him on the perimeter. In the paint, six-foot-11 senior Trey Porter can battle down low with Hayes for second chance points.

The Wolf Pack also hold a pair of AP All-American that can take over the game in any moment.

Fifth-year seniors Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline will look to carry most of the scoring load. Caroline is the driving force for the Pack and his absence against SDSU in the tournament was a huge blow. Caroline is expected to play Thursday after an achilles injury forced him to sit out against the Aztecs. The 6-foot-7 forward is nearly a walking double-double with 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. He has 15 double-doubles this season and 45 for his career to break the Mountain West record.

Martin’s snipe-shooting prowess on the perimeter gives the Pack a significant edge in the 3-point category. He leads the team with 19.2 points per game on 105 made 3s at a 34 percent clip. His twin brother Cody is getting hot from behind the arc as well, he’s shooting 52 percent from 3-point range since Jan. 15.

Nevada can attack opponents in several ways, a primary reason why they average a conference-best 80.7 points per game. Jazz Johnson gives them a spark off the bench with 11.2 points per game and a team-leading 45 percent shooting from 3-point range. Thurman and Porter both chip-in with over 7 points and five rebounds per game.

The Wolf Pack’s play defensively will emulate the Gators. Nevada has stuck with a physical man-to-man defense all season and the combination of Caroline and Porter down low makes it tough for opponents to score any easy buckets in the paint. They hold opponents to 66.7 points per game 41 percent shooting and its strides on this end of the floor have saved them from sluggish starts.

Both teams have experience against other teams in the tournament. The battle-tested Florida squad was 3-11 against teams in the tournament this season, with wins coming against Mississippi and LSU twice. The Gators struggled conference, but finished strong with a 9-9 record.

Nevada has played just three games against tournament teams, going 2-1 with wins versus Utah State and Arizona State and losing to the Aggies on the road. The Pack went a perfect 15-0 in home games at Lawlor Events Center, but constant offensive struggles led them to a 9-3 road record and 15-3 in conference.

The matchup between the two teams will be televised on TNT at 3:45 p.m. pacific day time.