I would love to just shrug off the Gators’ loss to Butler on Saturday and say “it’s just a game”. I wish I could do that. But the truth is that this game stung as much to me as any other Gator basketball loss I can remember. It was right up there with the Final Four game against Duke and the championship game against Michigan State.
I loved this team, I really did. I didn’t want to jinx it, but they reminded me so much of the ’06 Gators basketball team. A bunch of scrappy guys that play as a team, with no one superstar that stands out above the rest. I really felt like they had a good chance to end the season the same way that the 2006 team did.
So what went wrong in the Butler game?
It started with some good old fashioned bad luck. When the Gators took an 11 point lead a little more than half way through the second half and looked to be in total control of the game, the calls suddenly all started going Butler’s way. In a game where the refs had really been letting both teams play, they started blowing the whistle on the Gators every time there was a hint of contact (or apparent contact, which sometimes didn’t even exist). Worse, it didn’t seem to be called the same way on the other end. There were five or six questionable foul calls in that stretch that all went against the Gators.
The bad luck seemed to go beyond just the calls though. It seemed like every time we blocked a shot, or poked a ball away, it bounced right to another Butler player that either got an easy layup or an open three off of it. One of the biggest plays of the game was a blocked three-pointer that went right to Khyle Marshall, who was standing under the basket and was able to stick it in for an easy layup with an “and 1”.
Even the rims seemed to be against us. I can’t ever recall seeing so many balls take awkward bounces off the rim and go in as I saw go Butler’s way in this game. Then on our side, anything the touched the rim at all seemed to find a way out. Even the standard short free throw that typically bounces off the front of the rim, then off the backboard and then into the basket seemed to find a way to roll off the side for us every time. Meanwhile, Butler was throwing balls off the heel of the rim that bounced six feet into the air and came down with nothing but net. Even at the very end of the game when one of Shelvin Mack’s free throws looked like it was about to fall off the rim, it was like some magical power or big gust of wind blew it back towards the center of the cylinder.
But those are all excuses. If bad luck got Butler back into the game, questionable decisions lost it for us.
I love Billy Donovan, and there’s not a coach in college basketball that I would trade him for, but I thought that this game was badly mismanaged at the end.
It started at the end of regulation, and it’s something that’s always bothered me. Billy wants the last shot, and when he says last shot, he means the last shot. Erving Walker didn’t even start making his move until there were under 4 seconds on the clock, and the shot didn’t go up until just before the buzzer sounded. It’s how he always plays it in a tie game, and we never get a good look out of it (similar to the BYU game just before it).
Instead of making your move at the 4 second mark, make it at the 8 or 9 second mark. That way, if the first look isn’t there, you can make a pass or two and get a good look. If the shot is off the mark, it’s coming down to the players with a second and a half left rather than zero seconds left. The risk is still minimal, because even if they grab a defensive rebound all they can do with it is heave it the length of the court, but your chances of winning are much higher as it gives you a chance of an offensive put-back. Erving Walker’s missed shot at the end of regulation bounced right to Alex Tyus underneath. It would have been an easy game winning put-back for him (similar to Matt Howard’s game winner against ODU in the first round) if there was even 1 second on the clock.
Which would you rather have, a 15% chance of winning with a 0% chance of losing, or a 40% chance of winning with a 1% chance of losing on a full-court heave? Obviously, I’m just pulling those numbers out of the air, but I’ve got to imagine that if you start making your move at 9 seconds rather than 4 seconds your chances of scoring improve drastically.
After that miss, overtime brought with it the other questionable decision, the one that everyone is talking about, the decision to sit Vernon Macklin and let the guards try to win it.
Billy said that after the first two possessions of overtime it became apparent that Butler was just going to foul Macklin, and he didn’t want to put the game in the hands of a 44% free throw shooter. To that, I say let them foul. Andrew Smith was already out of the game and Matt Howard had 3 fouls. It wouldn’t take but a couple of possessions to run Butler out of big men entirely, and then who’s going to grab the rebounds for Butler? Who’s going to guard Tyus and Young?
Besides, just because you’re scared of Macklin being sent to the line doesn’t mean you have to abandon the inside game altogether. Tyus and Young can both shoot free throws and both could have asserted themselves inside as well. My favorite thing about this team was that they could win games that we shot poorly from the outside in, and we could have won this game in spite of only shooting 10% from three point range for the first 37 minutes of the game had we not forced it.
In the end, Billy Donovan had to choose between riding the hot hand (Tyus, Macklin, and the inside game), and riding what had gotten us there all year (the guards coming up with big shots late). The problem is, the outside shooting was off all night, and when a shooter is off, they’re usually off all night long. Also, just because you want to put the game in the hands of the guards doesn’t mean they have to do it by shooting from the outside. Kenny Boynton had had a lot of success getting into the lane earlier in the game.
In the end the Gators had two possessions in the final 19 seconds of overtime and rushed off two low percentage shots when they had plenty of time to set something better up. The shot that Boynton took with 19 seconds left looked like something that was drawn up to get him that (long) shot, not something where Boynton decided to pull the trigger on his own.
Also un-noted about this loss was that it was yet another game where we missed three or four wide open layups and put-backs throughout the course of the game, and then had a close game late where we really could have used those points. But perhaps the most frustrating thing is that when you take a look at the rest of the final four – VCU, Kentucky, and UConn – that’s a group that Florida could certainly have played with. This wasn’t a team that was playing for a trip to the Final Four just to say that they got there, they were playing for a trip to the Final Four with a legitimate, if not good, shot at winning it.
But alas, the Gators lost and this magical season is over. These guys gave us a great run and one of the most enjoyable seasons of Gator basketball I can remember, and I’ll always be thankful for that. I’m just sad it had to end, especially in a game it felt like we should have won.