LSU deals Florida damaging blow to NCAA Tournament hopes

As the calendar flipped from January to February, the Gators’ basketball team seemed to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament. But as the time comes to flip it again, the picture has darkened significantly.

Florida lost 96-91 to LSU on Saturday night, as you may have heard, and now Mike White’s team is in serious trouble of completing its fall from grace. It’s the Gators’ third straight loss, and fifth in the last seven games, which isn’t exactly the way you want to be trending with Selection Sunday looming just around the corner.

As you could probably guess from the score, the latest setback was due to porous defense. Antonio Blakeney had a career night for the Tigers, dropping 32 on the Gators, and Ben Simmons chipped in 22 more. It all added up to the largest amount of points a Gator team has surrendered since the Jimmer Fredette-led BYU Cougars dumped 99 on them in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. And that BYU team needed two overtimes to do it.

The simple explanation for why is that the Gators had no answer for anybody in a gold jersey. Blakeney, Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson combined to go 8-14 from three point territory, and when the Gators moved out to defend the perimeter, the Tigers would get it inside for Simmons for an easy layup or dunk. The only reason the Gators were even in the game at all was because they got hot at the right times.

Just like against South Carolina, Florida found themselves in an early hole and climbed out of it by launching a huge run on the strength of a Dorian Finney-Smith three and a few instances of catching the defense napping in the paint. But this time, the Gators again collapsed on both ends of the floor almost immediately after taking the lead, and LSU surged ahead by as much as 18. By some miracle, the shots the Gators had been missing for much of the game- and that logic suggests they should have continued to miss, namely, threes from Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill- suddenly started to fall, just in time to make a last ditch effort at a comeback.

But the Gators just couldn’t finish down the stretch.

Hill nailed a three that probably should have been taken by somebody more qualified to do so with :46 showing on the clock, cutting the LSU lead down to 86-84. After each team split a pair of free throws, Blakeney then hit a pair of his own to push the lead up to four. Florida then drew a play up for Chris Chiozza (because, why?) who missed, LSU grabbed the rebound, and for all intents and purposes, that was that.

Sometimes the other team gets hot, and this was certainly a fair argument to make in regards to this game. But Florida also gave up some points that they could have either avoided giving up or at least made much tougher for LSU to make. For example, maybe guarding the three point line a little more closely after LSU hit their fifth three of the night wouldn’t have been a bad idea. And after the 87 the Gators gave up to Vanderbilt earlier in the week, it’s now totally fair to label defense as a serious problem, even after it carried this team for most of the year.

So now the Gators sit, rather uncomfortably, at 17-12, with two games left plus the SEC Tournament. They’re faced with the even more uncomfortable proposition of having to win both remaining regular season games- one of which is against Kentucky- to put themselves on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. The challenge appears to be something like this: three more wins, regardless of when they come, are required before Selection Sunday for this team to have a shot at the Big Dance.

And given the defensive performances this team has turned in recently, I honestly don’t know if they’re up for that challenge.

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