The first basketball game of the day is not an NCAA Tournament tie. Instead, in Columbus the Florida Gators will meet the Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round of the NIT. Oddly enough, the Gators will be the higher seeded team, but cannot play in their own arena due to construction.
Both teams have had their share of successes and failures this season. Big Ten fans know about Ohio State's big wins over Kentucky and Iowa. For Florida, their biggest success came over West Virginia in the midseason Big 12/SEC Challenge. The youthful teams both struggled to secure wins against top Big Ten teams, with the Gators losing to both Purdue and Michigan State in the non-conference.
The Buckeyes and Gators both rely heavily on freshmen and sophomores, with the majority of starters for both being underclassmen. However, they both are led by an upperclassmen forwards. For Ohio State, junior Marc Loving has had an interesting career under head coach Thad Matta, but has emerged as the team's leading scorer this season and as a team leader. The Gators are led by senior Dorian Finney-Smith, who tops the team in both rebounding and scoring.
These two players are just about as similar as the two teams they represent. Both have proven themselves capable of hitting the outside shot, but had more success last year when they were playing in a more limited role. Loving has been hitting 32.9% from three this year after finishing with an incredible 46.1% made last season while playing with D'Angelo Russell. Finney-Smith has seen a slightly less, but still significant dip in outside shooting percentage, going from 42.6% to 37% this year.
One place where Loving will really have to pick up his game against Finney-Smith is rebounding. The Gator senior averages 8.2 a game and is one of the best in the SEC. Marc on the other hand, has greatly improved his rebounding numbers from last season, but his 5.3 boards per game is still on the low side for someone with his size and talent. He looked really good against Akron though, grabbing 13 boards to go along with his 18 points.
Expect these two team leaders to put it all on the line against each other as they fight to earn one more game for their teams. Both of them have the talent to reach Madison Square Garden and the semifinals and finals of the NIT, but they will have to get past the other one first. Ohio State will take on Florida at noon on ESPN, expect a lot of talk about these two forwards and the underclassmen surrounding them.