As Florida’s 88-71 victory over 9th ranked West Virginia began to sink in, Mike White allowed himself a little smile- and even chuckled a little bit on the sideline.
This was how things were supposed to be. The Gators handled “Press Virginia” with shocking ease to everybody but him, to whom this just looked like the way things were supposed to. The Mountaineers’ vaunted press was broken time and again, as Florida drained threes, fed John Egbunu inside, and even beat them for layups. The Gators not only took care of the ball, but they hit shots, rendering any defense WVU tried useless. And this was what White, a former point guard at Mississippi and a guard-first coach, expected.
But after 28 turnovers in their last two games, one of which was a home loss to a team that hadn’t won in Gainesville since I was an infant, nobody’s laughing anymore. Hate to say it, folks, but that West Virginia game appears to be an anomaly, not the expectation. And despite that West Virginia win, plus additional wins over tournament bound LSU and St. Joe’s teams, the Gators find themselves in real trouble with four weeks to go until the Big Dance.
No, it’s not because of the Gators’ resume to this point. If some sort of impending natural disaster threatened to ravage the entire country and forced the NCAA Tournament to start tomorrow, Florida would be solidly in as an eight or nine seed. The Gators are in trouble because of the schedule that lies ahead.
A huge road game against Georgia tonight kicks off a six game home stretch that could realistically see Florida lose up to four more games. The Gators then travel to South Carolina, get Vanderbilt at home, go to LSU, get Kentucky at home and then finish up at Missouri. I seriously doubt the Gators will lose to a dreadful Missouri team that’s banned from the postseason and currently sits dead last in the SEC, so throw that out. But the other five are real causes for concern.
And while the West Virginia game suggested that the Gators had turned the corner, subsequent games have proven that they have not. Florida played much better against Mississippi the first time in January, on the road, than they did last week in Gainesville. UF turned it over an incredible sixteen times in the rematch against White’s alma mater, and barely squeaked out a win. And then against Alabama, Florida blew a seven point lead (which was the equivalent of about a 20 point lead in a normal game) and lost an all time ugly defensive slugfest to the Crimson Tide. Given the gauntlet that lay over the horizon, White’s team needed that win badly, and they didn’t get it.
Some nights, shots will fall. Others, they won’t. That goes just as much for this Gators’ squad that, though they’re to be credited for effort and resiliency, is simply not that good, as it does for the Golden State Warriors’ tandem of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. Teams have off nights. They suck, but they happen. It then becomes imperative to find ways to win anyway by doing two things- manufacturing points however possible, a large part of which is free throws, and playing great defense. The Gators only did one of those things against Alabama, which was why they lost.
Teams like Florida need more than two consistent scoring threats. KeVaughn Allen and Dorian Finney-Smith are two good ones, but that just simply isn’t enough. They will be shut down, or ice cold on some nights, and they’ll need other guys to step in and score for them. Sometimes, this happens. Sometimes, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson and John Egbunu can produce 15 points, and when they do, Florida wins (see Auburn and Georgia games). And sometimes, they don’t, which results in ugly losses to teams they should beat.
That’s all in the past now, though. At this point, Florida has to move forward, and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, where your seed matters not the least. It was just two years ago that a Kentucky team finished a so-so year strong, and reached the national championship game as an eight seed. But while that’s about where the Gators are projected to be right now, that sort of run won’t happen without significant improvements. Florida just has to take care of the ball, and they’ve got to find additional scoring threats that opponents are forced to respect. And they’ve got six games, plus the SEC Tournament to do it.
Time is running out to get things figured out, but it’s not out yet. Four more wins (including the SEC Tourney) all but locks up a spot in the Big Dance for these Gators. Three more? Probably. Two more? They’ll sweat on Selection Sunday.